Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Endless Love and Vampires

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m hooked on the Twilight saga (by Stephenie Meyer), a tetralogy about a turgid romance between a human girl and an ageless, but breathtakingly handsome vampire who quenches his thirst by eating animals not people. The series has been an enormous hit with tweener and teen girls, and the first book was made into a movie (confession #2, also seen). But like Facebook, I think there are signs that the adult population is catching on. The books are classified as romance/thriller/fantasy, three genres in which I’ve had very little interest. While many of my aging friends lapped up the Harry Potter series, I shook my head. No 750 page wizard stories for me. So what was my attraction to this tale of teenage angst set in the rain-soaked town of Forks, Washington?

Initially, I was motivated as a writer considering young adult fiction. Why were these books so popular that all four have been on the best seller lists (oh, envy) and created such a stir among the blogging public, four years after the first book was published? (See, for example, The Twilight Series: Is It Really Just Soft Porn for Teens? Feb 13, 2009.) As some have pointed out, this is less a story about vampires than a romance. Complaints abound about how the vampires are not accurately represented. They can come out in cloudy days, and they glitter in the sunlight. Do we care? These are mythical creatures, for God’s sake. So how does the saga stack up as a romance? Aside from the grating prose style of the first book, Twilight (beware the omnipresent adverb, looming at the end of every tag line, but virtually eliminated in book two, New Moon), I found myself completing these 500 page tomes in several days, unable to put them down, despite their many writing and story flaws. (As Meyer’s critics point out, why are these two characters attracted to each other, except for superficial reasons—they smell good to each other, she baffles him, he looks good? Why do these vampires go to school anyway? Is a young woman willing to abandon everything for love really such a good role model for young people? But I digress.)

There are a number of factors that make these stories compelling as tales of romance. First, of course, Twilight is the classic story of forbidden love, like Romeo and Juliet (to which the protagonist, Bella Swan, frequently refers, or Johnny and Baby in "Dirty Dancing" (still one of my favorite movies, I admit). Can their differences be reconciled? Second, the two lovers are portrayed sympathetically so that we root for them. (Personally, Edward’s cold skin and marble hard body don’t do it for me. One critic found him too controlling.) Third are the elements of danger. Edward (vampire in question) might lose control, after all, and there are other “bad” vampires, who do feast on human blood, and who may stand in the way. (The introduction of the werewolves was excessive, in my opinion.) Fourth is the overarching question that must be answered—is Bella’s love so strong that she would be willing to become a vampire herself at the risk of losing her human identity and contact with her family? Fifth is the love triangle between two mortal but likable enemies. Who will win Bella’s heart? Can both enemies coexist? And finally, each book leaves the reader dangling sufficiently to want more. (confession #3: I have two more books to go.) The sexual tension is present but not the driving force. This book harks back to the days when relationships were consummated only within marriage. Hardly the stuff of “soft porn.”

So all I can say is good for Stephenie Meyer. She’s figured out a way to keep kids reading, even if it’s not high class literature. She’s got us talking and dissecting and forgetting for a few hours that we have an economic crisis out there. And as for me, maybe it’s time for me to make a date with a little wizard in training.

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