Life and Death

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined by Stephenie Meyer

So for the 10th anniversary of Twilight’s publication a couple years ago, Stephenie Meyer published a gender-switched version of the story. I think the point was to address her critics who say the story is sexist and stereotyped. Like, “See, it’s not sexist, because you can totally switch the protagonists’ sexes and it still works!”

Except it doesn’t.

When you change Bella Swan to Beaufort, and Edward Cullen to Edythe, it only draws attention to how gender-stereotyped the original characters are, because they are so much less believable as the opposite gender. I think it would be theoretically possible for believable characters to do and say some of the things Beau and Edythe do, but not the way they’re presented here. Making Bella into Beau without adding any more work in characterization only draws attention to the vacuum at the core of this character, perhaps because we’re less used to reading flat male protagonists than flat female protagonists. The reason Bella has no substance is so that she can better serve as a vehicle for her female audience’s wish fulfillment. Female readers are used to identifying with male characters, even in romances, but not with vacuous male characters meant to be their stand-in for masturbatory fantasy.

Ironically, one of the passages marking the gender change makes Beau significantly more secure and confident than Bella. His masculinity isn’t threatened by Edythe’s strength.

I wondered if it was supposed to bother me that she was so much stronger than I was, but I hadn’t been insecure about things like that for a long time. Ever since I’d outgrown my bullies, I’d been fairly well satisfied. Sure, I’d like to be coordinated, but it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t good at sports. I didn’t have time for them anyway, and they’d always seemed a little childish. Why get so worked up about a bunch of people chasing a ball around? I was strong enough that I could make people leave me alone, and that was all I wanted.

So, this small girl was stronger than I was. A lot. But I was willing to bet she was stronger than everyone else I knew, kids and adults alike. She could take Swarzenegger in his prime. I couldn’t compete with that, and I didn’t need to. She was special.

Because its language is so bad, Twilight is not usually the kind of book I re-read . Putting aside the merits of the story, or lack thereof, the sentences are plodding, exaggerated, and repetitive. Though I admit the wish fulfillment aspect of the story took me in pretty strongly on my first reading, I still remember being incredibly irritated by the flowery way Edward was described, and the unrealistic social scene at Forks High School. You would think Meyer would try to improve on this aspect of the story, given the chance to re-write it, but maybe she just doesn’t have the skill, or the material brings the language down to this level.

There are very few changes to the story, though I would think that for an author, making changes would be half the appeal of a retelling. The car accident happens exactly the same way. The science classes do the exact same experiments. Most of the dialogue is copied word for word. I would advise no one to read this rewrite unless they have a burning desire to re-read Twilight itself, the experience is so similar, with so few new insights delivered by the gimmick of the gender-switch.

I found so many of the choices Meyer made in this rewrite odd. She gender-switches almost all the characters, including making the school secretary and nurse men. In my 12 years as a student and 8 years as a teacher I have never once run into a male secretary or nurse in a school. That’s just not realistic. Choices like that take you out of the story and draw attention to the gender-flipping. At the same time, she leaves Beaufort’s parents the same, and they certainly have a much more strongly gendered impact on the story than minor characters like Mr. Cope.

Spoiler alert! The ending is one big change. I assume since Meyer wasn’t going to rewrite the whole series, and since making the human character male meant there wasn’t going to be any vampire baby anyway, it made some sense to change Beau into a vampire at the end. One odd part of this ending is that there is a lot of superfluous information inserted there, parts of the larger world that Meyer built that fit in New Moon and Eclipse, but had no place in Twilight. Another part is that the epilogue just goes on for way too long, and doesn’t have enough kissing. Jules Black, the female Jacob, kind of gets the shaft here. She doesn’t appear in person in the way-less-dramatic-than-it’s-trying-to-be vampire/werewolf confrontation scene, and the gender-switching has prevented her soulmate from being born, so I guess she’s going to die alone, but hey, at least Beau told her mom that he wants to be her friend.

Midnight Sun, Meyer’s unfinished, unpublished novel that tells the story of Twilight from Edward’s point of view, might have been more a interesting text to gender-switch. It’s the same problematic story, but Edward’s voice is stronger, and he’s a much more conflicted, complicated character than Bella. Allowing female readers to identify with a strong, immortal female vampire as she falls in love might have allowed them to feel powerful and bad ass.Twilight is all about wish fulfillment; a gender-switched Midnight Sun might have given female readers a chance to experience an even more subversive fantasy–a relationship where she’s in control and worshiped for it. But, again, I don’t think Meyer was ever doing anything revolutionary with gender roles. And this book is proof.

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The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon

These two children’s books take a lot of fairy tale tropes and give them a feminist spin. I’d recommend them to any parent of a princess-obsessed girl.

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

This story begins with a typical princess setup: the king and queen lock a princess in a tower and call for princes to compete for her hand in marriage. But this princess isn’t having it: she escapes and works to complete the tasks set by the king so that she can win her own hand. She befriends the witch and the bandits that the princes were told to defeat, and reveals the cheating committed by the princes. She finds a baby dragon, that becomes her pet. It’s a bright and happy story with a satisfying ending.

The Runaway Dragon by Kate Coombs

This sequel begins with the almost grown, somewhat neglected dragon running away, and Meg going off on a quest to find it. Her parents make her take a bunch of royal guards, and the party gets lost in an enchanted forest, where a dwarf who is knowledgeable of fairy tale tropes gives them lots of advice. Meg’s friends end up in a giant’s castle, while she and her magician outwit an evil sorceress. I like how a romantic subplot is a bit of an afterthought, rather than the main point. The focus is on Meg’s desire for adventure, her worry for her pet dragon, and solving the problems that she and her friends get themselves into.

Classic Women’s Lit Rewritten

I think it’s fun and potentially instructive when authors rewrite or draw inspiration from classic literature. These two books offer new perspectives on two of my favorite 19th-century novels.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This collection of short stories is inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular by the triumphant ending line quoted in the title. It’s really interesting to see how this wide variety of writers took that idea and ran with it in so many different directions. There are stories here that retell Jane Eyre from the perspectives of different characters, memorably Grace Poole and Rochester, some concentrating on her boarding school or her time with St. John Rivers, some changing the setting to contemporary or another country or even a sci-fi future. In some of them, the connection to Jane Eyre is small, but it’s fun to look for it. Chevalier’s opening essay is solid and fun, nostalgic in a way that many of us feel about Bronte. If you like short stories, Jane Eyre, and/or the authors included here, including Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emma Donogue, you’d enjoy this volume too.

Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton

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This book is a kind of fan fic sequel to Pride and Prejudice that concentrates on a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend who marries the obsequious minister Mr. Collins. I was disappointed that the book didn’t tell much about Charlotte’s marriage, instead beginning with her widowhood. Now, no one wants to read about Mr. Collins, one of the most annoying characters ever written, and everyone rejoices at his early demise and Charlotte’s freedom, but in a way this makes achieving happiness seem almost too easy for Charlotte. This book takes for granted that her marriage to Collins was a mistake, but I’m not sure Austen would agree. I was somewhat disappointed that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t appear in the book much either.

The action of this novel begins when Charlotte’s younger sister Maria joins her in her widow cottage and starts husband-hunting, attracted by a young American. Each sister has two suitors, one good and initially disparaged, one bad and initially pursued. Maria is careless and boy-crazy at least for the first half of the book, while Charlotte is prim and proper in an exaggerated way, so much so that the central problem, when it finally comes up, is one that you can barely believe she would ever get herself into. The sentence-level writing is Austen-inspired and fun. I had mixed feelings about this one. Probably only a serious Austen fan would enjoy it.

Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I had so much fun reading this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I met Curtis Sittenfeld at the Southern Festival of Books and got excited about reading this book when she read an excerpt of Liz and Darcy’s smoldering banter. There was plenty more sexual tension, and the two proposal scenes did not disappoint. Sittenfeld turns the classic into contemporary “chick lit,” while maintaining much more faithfulness to the original than Bridget Jones’s Diary, or any other retelling I can recall. The title comes from a reality TV show in the book that’s inspired by The Bachelor. I enjoyed the Cincinnati setting, and the discussions of the meaning of growing up in, leaving, and returning to a place like Cincinnati.

Sittenfeld’s Liz is considerably less likeable than the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet, about whom Austen said, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” Liz is a judgmental busybody, pushing her family members to make more responsible choices when they don’t want to. She puts her parents’ house on the market for them and makes her younger sisters move out and get jobs. She’s right, but she crosses some boundaries to get her way. However, the issue of likeable female characters is fraught. It is not necessary that a character be likeable, only interesting, and Sittenfeld’s Liz qualifies. Her Darcy is perhaps more likeable than Austen’s, merely reserved rather than frequently rude.

Sittenfeld’s changes are not necessarily the ones I would have chosen, but they work well within the universe she has created. Mr. Collins is less obsequious and less objectionable for Charlotte Lucas to pair with. There is no entail, obviously, and Collins is just a tech-rich cousin. Lady Catherine de Bourgh becomes a stand-in for Gloria Stienem, and she has no connection to Darcy or action in the final chapters. Sittenfeld’s answer to Wickham the cad is more pathetic than despicable, and he also disappears early in the action and doesn’t come up in the story’s resolution. Mrs. Bennet’s silliness becomes shopaholicism and moderate racism and transphobia. She may be the character most true to her roots in Austen, which may be why her mania for getting her daughters paired off seems so anachronistic, although she surely has her counterparts in today’s reality. The biggest stretch may be the big deal made over Lydia’s elopement. I heartily recommend it to any romance fan and especially to fans of Austen.

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker

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This is the behind-the-scenes story of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. The drama of the Bennet daughters with Bingley, Darcy, Collins, and Wickham happens in the background, as this action centers on Sarah, Elizabeth’s maid. This focus really shows how privileged Austen’s heroines are, despite the novel’s handwringing about their relative poverty. Instead of hiding it behind kitchen doors, this book foregrounds the back-breaking physical labor that enabled comfortable upper class life in Austen’s day. This quick quote summing it up nicely: “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.” One interesting twist is that the Bennet family’s cook had had a long-ago affair with Mr. Bennet, resulting in a son who could have saved the family all that trouble, if only Mr. Bennet had condescended to marrying a servant. That long-lost son turns out to be quite a romantic figure, with a Darcy-esque temperament and a checkered past, when he returns and falls in love with Sarah.

The Gap of Time

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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This is a modern retelling of A Winter’s Tale. I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I think that’s mostly because it’s just really hard to translate Shakespeare to a modern context. The jealous ravings of Leo (Leontes) seem even more crazed and misogynistic when it’s a rich guy in a business suit saying them, rather than an ancient king. And the tonal shift between the first and second half seemed even more jarring in print than on the stage, for some reason. More than the story, I appreciated Winterson’s introduction and epilogue about the importance of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s later works, and how this story is a kind of re-writing of Othello, turning a tragedy into a comedy.

After Alice

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

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Maguire, author of Wicked and a few other great books that re-tell beloved stories from different points of view, addresses Alice In Wonderland through giving a story to the people Alice leaves behind when she journeys behind the looking glass. Many of the characters, including the protagonist Ada, are original, though they also meet many of Carroll’s strange creations. Ada is a friend and neighbor of Alice’s who follows her into Wonderland. The story mostly alternates between Ada and Lydia, Alice’s older sister who is looking for her. Lydia and Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong, exchange barbs and witticisms as they look for the girls and vie for the attention of the visiting American Mr. Winter. Maguire also gives a backstory to Alice’s family: they are mourning her mother, and on the afternoon that Alice goes missing, her father is entertaining Charles Darwin, an old friend making a condolence visit. Ada and her back brace give Maguire occasion to address issues of disability, while Siam, a young former slave in the care of Mr. Winter, allows him to discuss abolition and the American civil war. The wry narrator puts the original Alice in her context, Victorian-era Oxford, and in a few passages that read like a remarkably witty textbook Maguire makes explicit the conflict about sex roles, evolution, empire, race, and class that Carroll was responding to in his  trippy, whimsical way.