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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Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell has become a new favorite author of mine. I think she writes the best loves scenes in YA. I loved her book Landline and related to it a lot as a working mom and as someone who married her college sweetheart. That might still be my favorite of her novels, but I’ve really enjoyed diving into her backlist.

Attachments

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This is Rowell’s first novel, for adults. It’s set in 1999 and 2000, about an IT guy at a newspaper who has to read the company emails for his job and kind of falls in love with a movie reviewer after following her personal emails with her friend. The guy, Lincoln, is the protagonist, and it’s great to watch his growth through the book as he finally grows up, moves out, gets over his long-ago ex, and just kind of blossoms. The two spend most of the book crushing on each other from afar, and the tension is all about when they will finally actually talk to each other. With so much buildup, there’s a huge potential for letdown, but Rowell delivers.

Eleanor and Park

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In this intense YA romance, an overweight outcast bonds with a sweet half-Korean guy over comic books and music on the bus in 1986. The setting is crucial, informing the pop culture that the two bond over. Also, much of the tension comes from communication difficulties between the two, since Eleanor’s family does not have a phone line, and this is something that would have been unheard of even five years later. Transport the story to the present day with its cheap cell phones, and you lose about a hundred pages of angst. Eleanor’s stepfather is abusive, and she also has to deal with some nasty bullying, so her relationship with Park is the one bright spot in her life. It’s a bittersweet story, with an ending that’s ambiguous, painful but hopeful. If there’s a lesson, it might be about how dangerous it is for a teenager to depend so entirely on any one relationship.

Fangirl

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This is probably my second-favorite of Rowell’s books. It’s also her only one set entirely in the present day, rather than Rowell’s favored time period of the 80’s and 90’s. It’s about a super-introverted fantiction writer in her first semester of college. She (eventually) falls in love with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, a farm boy. The ever-so-slow progress of their relationship and his careful campaign to win her trust is super sweet to watch. The one problem with this story may be that the boyfriend is too perfect. Seriously, his biggest flaw is that he’s too happy all the time.

Carry On

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Rowell’s most recent novel is a departure from her other books because it’s a fantasy. It’s a kind of spin-off from Fangirl because it’s either the fanfiction the main character writes, or it’s the ‘canon’ she’s inspired by (I like to think it’s the fanfiction). Simon Snow, the ‘chosen one’ hero, is clearly inspired by Harry Potter, as is the setting of a school of magic. Twilight fandom might be another influence, as the other main protagonist is a vampire. Rowell was clearly also inspired by ‘slash’ fanfiction, in which two ostensibly heterosexual male characters fall in love. I always appreciate when a magical ‘system’ works on two levels, and this one checks that box. In this universe, magic gets its power from words that are repeated frequently, but must also be constantly reinvigorated by neologisms and fresh phrasing. The conflicts between two factions in the magical community seem to echo the “canon wars.”

City of Fallen Angels

City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

Cassandra_Clare_City_of_Fallen_Angels_book_coverThis book continues The Mortal Instruments series. The last book, City of Glass, rounded off a trilogy and could have been the end, but Clare (and her publishers and $$$) decided to keep it going. I’m not complaining, though. This book was better than I expected it to be, and sets up the next trilogy-within-a-series to be pretty good.

I was annoyed in the beginning and middle of the book by Clary and Jace’s inability to communicate. I have no patience for people who pointlessly refuse to talk to someone they’re supposed to love, in real life or fiction, and I’ve said it before. Maybe they should get a pass because they’re so young, but it’s such an easily solved problem that it’s kind of boring and frustrating to read about. It seems a pattern with this series (or just its hero, Jace) that the first half of the book is annoying, but the second half makes up for it.

I was more impressed with the ending than I thought I’d be. I said before that I think Clare has improved as a writer since her first book, and it shows here. The villain revealed here is quite formidable, connected to previous conflicts, but revealing new information about the background and taking the gruesomeness to a whole new level.

And the climactic love moment here is probably the best thing I’ve read from Clare yet. One perfect moment of understanding and connection between these characters before the destruction that will be wreaked on them in the next book. It allowed me to see in a more clear way than usual the appeal of romances like these. Since Clary’s point of view is primary, the scene functions as a moment of wish fulfillment for the mostly-female audience. The secret touch is that Clare knows so well what her audience fantasizes about: they (we) want to be saviors. Clary got to be the person we all want to be in our relationships, so perfectly loving and accepting, sparking change and self-acceptance in someone who’s basically good but troubled. Clary comforts the bad boy Jace, washing away his shame in her compassion. She startles herself with her wisdom and feminine strength. She gets to be a saint and say saintly things without being a martyr, without even being chaste. It’s a powerful fantasy because it’s not about being passive or objectified, but about being an agent of positive change in the life of a loved one. It’s what we all want, and it’s one of the only forms of power usually allowed to women.

The Book of Life

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

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This book concludes the Discovery of Witches trilogy. I think I found myself enjoying each book in this series less than the one before. Instead of growing on me, the characters grated. I had a lot of expectations for this book, but I didn’t find the revelations as surprising as I’d hoped, although it was somewhat satisfying to see some of the villains get their comeuppances.

The gender politics in this book are complicated, but overall seemed to me to be more progressive on the surface than they were at the deeper level where it counts. At the very least, I found them questionable, and that was disappointing, because I remember thinking the previous books were so egalitarian. (Maybe it’s also a sign of my own standards getting higher in the intervening years.) It’s good that Matthew encourages Diana to keep her name rather than take his, and refers to their family as the Bishop-Clairmont clan. It’s good that Diana has to save Matthew at the climax, rather than vice versa. But on the other hand, numerous times, characters discuss how hard it is for Matthew to be away from Diana even for very short periods of time, and it starts to sound kind of unhealthy. In this way the story romanticizes overprotective and clingy behavior. And on the sentence level, several passages describing the emotional relationship between them seemed slightly off:

“The secret is that I may be the head of the Bishop-Clairmont family, but you are its heart,” he whispered. “And the three of us are in perfect agreement: The heart is more important” (447).

 

“Dance with me, I said…

I trod on his toe. “Sorry.”

“You’re trying to lead again,” he murmured. He pressed a kiss to my lips, then whirled me around. “At the moment your job is to follow.”

“I forgot,” I said with a laugh.

“I’ll have to remind you more often, then.” Matthew swung me tight to his body. His kiss was rough enough to be a warning and sweet enough to be a promise (552).

These passages seem to emphasize that despite Diana’s intelligence, scholarship, and supernatural power, she has to take a submissive role in relation to Matthew. Harkness romanticizes this submissive role, making it seem sexy and going on about how important it is, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it tilts the balance of power in the relationship away from the heroine.

One aspect of the series I found mildly annoying was the focus on opulent backgrounds and settings. Harkness meticulously describes décor, furnishings, and artwork, as well as the extravagant menus of several parties. I think these passages are mostly meant to provide the reader with pretty images, as well as to show the wealth, power, and exquisite taste of the characters. Since the de Clermonts are vampires, they’ve had centuries to accumulate money and collect fine art from every era. One character makes a big deal about the fact that a portrait by a  famous Renaissance artist is hanging in one of the bathrooms of the de Clermont castle. I would have gotten the point about what these settings communicated about the characters if 3/4 of these passages had been cut from the books. In their excess, these passages mostly just read to me as materialism.

When Diana first encounters the villain, she hesitates to use her magic arrow to take him down, and the story makes a big deal of this hesitation, as if it’s her tragic flaw or something. I don’t find it to be a moral failing to hesitate to kill someone, to weigh that decision carefully even in a tense moment of threatening confrontation, so this idea rang false to me. After all, Diana is not a trained soldier, so expecting her to react like one is unrealistic, and the way she berates herself and accepts guilt for the villain’s later actions is ridiculous.

 

The Twelve

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

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This book is the second in a trilogy about a vampire apocalypse. Most of the story takes place 90-100 years after the rapid collapse of North American civilization. One of my favorite parts of the book was the beginning, which told about a group of people escaping Colorado in the first days of the outbreak. After that story ends, this book continues with many of the characters from the first book, as they take down an authoritarian government and the twelve original “virals” who started the outbreak and control all the other vampires.

The violence in this book got to be a bit too much for me at times. Violence in books usually only bothers me when it’s gratuitous, when it exceeds a certain level that’s necessary for telling a violent story. Like, when I’d already gotten the point that Guilder, the villain, was evil, after his regime hurt people in particularly nasty ways three or four times. After that, adding more violent incidents that served no purpose in the plot except proving that point yet again was gratuitous. In a book of this length, nothing should be gratuitous.

Another quibble I had with this novel is that it seemed to reinvent the “rules” that had been set in the previous book. In the first book, virals were barely human, and acted like bats, but in this one there was also another kind of viral who acted human but had red eyes and needed blood from the “source.” I felt myself getting impatient with the narrative at times. The language was often overblown and repetitive. I didn’t like this book as much as the first one, but I might pick up the conclusion anyway.

After Dead

After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse  by Charlaine Harris

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This book is like an encyclopedia of the lives of the many characters of the Southern Vampire Mysteries after the end of the final book of the series, Dead Ever After. Characters are listed alphabetically and there are some cute illustrations. I was surprised to learn how many characters I had forgotten about. It was kind of interesting to see how many ways Harris could come up with to show that certain people did not live happily ever after. And there were a handful of characters I was kind of curious about. But for the most part this little volume just seemed like a way to milk the series for one more payday. Not worth picking up for longer than it takes to flip to about three characters’ pages.

Balthazar

Balthazar by Claudia Gray

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This YA romance novel is a spin-off from the Evernight series, which is about a school for vampires. It takes two minor characters from that series and continues their story after the end of the action of the previous four books. The vampire mythology of these books is both more complicated and more traditional than in some other vampire books. These vampires can’t cross running water, but don’t seem to have too much trouble with sunlight; they have a particular antipathy for ghosts.

Balthazar is a vampire who was ‘turned’ back in America’s early colonial days, and Skye is a human with some supernatural abilities, especially seeing ghosts. When a group of vampires comes to Skye’s town and starts stalking her, Balthazar protects her, and they become close and fall in love. In many ways, this is a fairly typical YA romance, with some predictable plot elements, like a passionate first kiss followed immediately by a rejection. It’s gratifying that Skye is not helpless, that she does a pretty good job of taking care of herself when she has to and even saves Balthazar at one point. It’s also fairly interesting and unusual for YA that Skye is not a virgin at the beginning of the story, and she and Balthazar get to have sex, though without graphic description. If you like YA paranormal romance and aren’t expecting something that will blow your mind, you’ll probably like this book, and the entire Evernight series.