Life and Death made a lot of noise last week. Billed as “a re-imagined take on Twilight“, Life and Death takes the familiar characters from the saga and stands them on their heads with a simple gender swap – Bella is now Beau Swan, a socially awkward and clumsy teenager who is new to Forks, Washington while Edward is now Edythe Cullen, a beautiful and dangerous hundred-plus-year-old vampire.
Rather than recap the story we all know, I want to record some of my impressions and thoughts that I had while reading this book. I took extensive notes of things that I noticed were weird because of the gender switch, many that promoted new inconsistencies instead of correcting older ones. This review will be a bit long and wandering, so please bear with me for the duration. I don’t expect a cut-and-dry review of this book.
The first thing that I noticed with Stephenie Meyer’s newest book is, of course, the gender character differences now presented. It’s hard not to with Beau going on and on about himself for pages on end. Meyer says up front that writing a man as a narrator is different because they are less “flowery” than women. What happened though is that my brain automatically started pulling out things that Meyer changed, and unfortunately did not change; things that I felt (probably negatively) which belong more towards one gender than another. Some of them are more obvious but many of them are more subtle, deeply nuanced things. For example, Beau kept worrying about the fact that his skin was too pale, so every time someone noted it he blushed or became embarrassed and defensive about it. I have never once heard a man complain about being found too pale. This seems to be more of a “girl thing”, since Western society still encourages women to get a healthy glow (despite the terrible risks of skin cancer). The second thing of this nature that bothered me was Beau’s cataloged list of his blushes, specifically the splotches that occurred over his neck or his ears turning red, etc. Again, I have never heard of a man who worried about such a thing to the tune of a dozen plus mentions (or more, since that is what I tallied in my list). It doesn’t seem to make it ring true with a male character versus a female to be so obsessed with little physical imperfections like these.
Stephenie Meyer admits to changing much of her original text to make this new take work. However, she misses the mark on quite a few things. The socialization between men and women in our culture is a very defined thing and, even as a writer, you cannot get around some of the specifics. While adding in parts to make Beau seem more masculine she also peppers the book with inconsistencies that she did not bother changing from Bella’s original POV. One notable thing that I can recall is Beau’s frequent mentions of his non-athletic prowess and his clumsiness. He often seems embarrassed by this, yet on page 82 we get a lengthy added paragraph about Beau comparing his coordination problems with Edythe’s preternatural grace. He mentions that he is not bothered by the fact that he is not good at sports, which is completely untrue since he had mentioned a complex about it (again, according to my notes) no fewer than four times. You cannot introduce new things that completely refute established mythology or character development with correcting established fact in concert. You just can’t.
Meyer also describes Beau as having OCD tendencies. I saw little evidence to support this claim, other than the fact that he was completely obsessed with Edythe. When I think of OCD, and of the people I have known who live with it every day, I think of repetitive behaviours, rituals that make no sense, irrational starts and stops, obsession of things to completion before beginning them again and again, etc. etc. Two things stuck out in my mind as things that Beau might be obsessed with – one was very obviously Edythe (we can’t ever get around that one). The other was school, which consumes all of Beau’s life besides. To say that Beau did a lot of homework is an understatement, but what high school student with half a built-in give-a-damn doesn’t? More importantly, what YA character doesn’t do a lot of homework, clean a lot of house, and obey their parents? YA teenagers have always been do-gooder task oriented people with extreme to-do lists and a stubborn sense of will. It centers them in a universe of normalcy and is an iconic characteristic of the genre. This isn’t something that is inherent to one gender or another. That said, to tell us that Beau has OCD up front and then not show it is lazy, plain and simple. It’s like she had to come up with any plausible explanation why Beau would do any amount of housework and cook for himself and Charlie. This makes me ask the question of what Stephenie Meyer thinks of men in less “traditional” gender roles, as homemakers and caretakers? Is she implying that the only way a man can and will clean is that he has a compulsion to do it? Is she implying that a woman’s “place” is in the home? I have very fixed opinions on this very thing and this kind of implication is hard to swallow, even in this world.
Let’s move on.
I think at some point I must have stopped caring about the weird gendered stuff and started caring more about the story. Either that, or Meyer stopped introducing so many weird things that stuck out, or that Beau had finally solidified as male to me. Whatever it was, it took around a hundred pages to crystallize before I felt invested enough to carry on. That was about when Edythe becomes a heavier player in Beau’s day-to-day drama. And with that, let us talk about Edythe and how she hit me in this retelling…
Edythe is a very different animal than Edward. For one thing she is more aloof than Edward was, almost automatically colder and less friendly, even after she and Beau become friends. She seems more cautious, less appealing on some levels. And yet I would call her more seductive than Edward, more of a temptress, less of an every-person (if Edward was any of this, Edythe herself is none of it. Period.). There is also something infinitely more scary about her than there was about Edward. She is more feral, more predatory, and so much more dangerous than Edward. She is also dismissive of humans and those she considers beneath her. You can see it in the Italian restaurant scene when she all but throws money at the server. I would like to say that Meyer is pulling a lot of mythology and world folklore into place for her. In many cultures, the female is almost always the more deadly of the two for one simple reason – The female is almost always protecting her young and, as such, has more of a mama tigress feel whenever she feels threatened. Edythe feels like these myths. She feels unapproachable. Vicious. Deadly. Malicious. Edythe feels like every demon and fabled temptress or earth-born Goddess that I have ever encountered in my reading travels…but that may be because I am putting those things onto her and is not owing to anything that Meyer specifically did. Meyer made her more clinical than Edward, that is for sure, more calculated and precise, pretentious even. As such, she reads as trouble, pure and simple. I might be making more of her in my head than is actually there because I still wonder how much Meyer feels about women as a whole. They seem to either be helpless and hopeless or abject killers in her world and there is little in-between to this range. It sort of feels like she only fleshed out Edythe because she did so much work originally with Edward and had to have the balance. All of her character nuance is either over-explained or gifted upon her male characters. It just is.
Meyer wrote an introduction letter with this book explaining what it is and why it happened. In it she talks about the criticism that Bella was a “damsel in distress”. Meyer refutes this by saying that Bella was always a “human in distress”. This very claim is what sparked the gender-switch in the first place; that Meyer could take the opportunity to prove her own words. Beau is helpless because he is not assertive. He is helpless because he is clumsy and uncoordinated and lacks toughness. That much has been established. He is also a bit hapless because he is surrounded by people whose very nature have put him into an impossible and dangerous situation, one that he is only too happy to stay in. Meyer thinks she has addressed the criticisms but she has missed one major one: That her books hint at domestic, physical, and emotional abuse.
It’s hard to escape my notice that once Beau’s fascination with Edythe reached a certain critical point. He becomes less obsessed with cataloging his own personal insecurities and solely obsessed with admiring her perfection (while comparing it to his imperfections). This says something about the all-consuming nature of their relationship. The book is all about Edythe and little about Beau passed the first hundred pages, and this adds some weight to the idea that these books, at their core, are abusive. Beau constantly questions his luck, makes disparaging comments about his own life and what it is worth by comparison to Edythe. Beau constantly asks himself why she would want him, even when she tells him why. This does not diminish with gender. It also doesn’t change the fact that it is the foundation upon where abuse grows.
Living with abuse is a hard thing to do. I myself grew up in it with my own parents, which might explain some of my sensitivity towards it. I watched the more aggressive and violent culmination of three decades of it. There is no defense of a person committing violence against one another. While Twilight plants the seeds of this its the later books are where those seeds blossom, where the years of emotional havoc truly take form. It isn’t until Breaking Dawn when Bella gives up everything that she has ever known and loved to solely be Edward’s consort and Renesme’s mother that we truly see where her self-worth lies. Bella is constantly hurt. She withstands all manner of obstacles to be with Edward, who does little more than shower her with expensive gifts. She births his hybrid human/vampiric daughter despite the fact that carrying her may kill her. She does all this because she believes that it is for the best and because she wants to cement a family with a man she feels she isn’t good enough for. In reality, this is how abuse victims cope after years and years of toil…they just accept everything as is and there is nothing else to it.
Breaking Dawn was a horrible book with a terribly insulting anti-feminist message. I was a concrete fan of the first three books and then that book was published. It took me years to understand completely why I didn’t like it and reading Life and Death only underscores the truth – the abusive elements were in there all along. It just took a reread and a gender swap for me to see them clearly. Beau is just as endangered as Bella was but it is not from where Meyer thinks it was – it’s from his newfound family. It is directly because of Edythe and the choice that Beau made to be with her. Beau (and Bella alike) always had one, and only one true enemy in these books…their selves.
So, this begs the question that I am sure is on everyone’s minds – do I think the switch works? Frankly, it does and then it doesn’t, because she has failed on a few levels to carry out more basic changes into her own story. What she does change is not impacting enough to make a huge difference. What she doesn’t change becomes a glaring error of what it could (and should) have been. Honestly, I am torn, because reading this book has brought me to a gripping realization that stills my hand even as I write this:
As a Young Adult reader I have moved so beyond these books. Legions beyond, in fact.
It happens, I read the first three of these book in 2007 when Eclipse was brand new to the shelves. I had already worked in a bookstore for two years and had read sporadically in the YA section, which I was tending. I liked it, but I didn’t really love anything in the genre until I read these books. Twilight had been on the rise. I was dubious of it until a co-worker (whose reading tastes lined up nearly identical to mine) told me that I should read them. For many reasons that I cannot articulate just now I started them, and within the week I finished them and, to my chagrin, I greatly enjoyed them. I even retained my adoration of them after Breaking Dawn was published, choosing to sever the connection between the last book and the first three in my mind. They were a gateway series for many others to come, and by that logic I fundamentally cannot hate them. Without Twilight we simply would not have so many others. The publishing world blew up after the success of this series and so many other stellar ones, even more Paranormal Romances, followed in its wake, flooding the market with supernatural themes and the Urban Fantasy goodness which I love to this day. I have always maintained that reading Twilight allowed me to discover so many other better books that I love eternally, and that while it was not the best writing there was something to Twilight that a little piece of me could not help but love (despite my many ethical and moral objections to much of the series’ messages). Meyer captured the psyche of an unsure, inexperienced, low self-esteemed young woman on the brink of self-awareness and emotional discovery. Meyer captured that girl’s voice, a voice that all women have been plagued with at one time or another, and that is the secret to these books success…not the romance, not the end-result, not the phenomena, not the controversy. It’s Bella, a bit nerdy, a little pretentious in her approach, ever-graceless and ever-clueless…Bella has always been the heart of these books, its cause and consequence alike.
And now Bella is Beau, just as unsure, just as inexperienced with all of the facade in place. So, does her voice work as a man’s?
Honestly, it’s all a blur to me now, because I was prepared to give it three stars, my mark of a meh/could have been better/had some ethical problems with it but still read it. I wanted to dislike this read. Despite all of my ups and downs, my ethical dilemmas and my annoyances, this book garnered a 4 star review from me because of one reason:
That ending, though.
After several years, four books, five movies, numerous explanations and defenses about why it happened the way it did, Meyer did the one thing that I never expected her to do at this point: She gave me one of the endings that I wanted from the very beginning of reading Twilight in this unexpected book, which surprised me as much as it might surprise you.
All of Meyer’s writing points from this come down to the last few chapters and the epilogue, the place where she changed what happens to the story. Without mentioning any spoilers I will say this – all of this book’s gimmicks aside, the fact that it may be a money grab, the fact that I was instantly seduced and convinced to revisit a book series that I now love-to-hate and hate-to-love…all of that changed with the ending. Because the ending of this book was EVERYTHING.
In one fell swoop I remembered what I liked about these books – their ability to surprise me. Honestly, I was a little bored in the middle of the book rereading it and knowing where it was going (which did not happen in my original read several years ago). That Meyer managed to surprise me after all of my suspicion is an achievement, and I must doff my narrative cap to her. I certainly didn’t see that coming and it was a pleasant surprise.
So, that said, will she write more books from this reboot? She could, but I have no idea where she would take them. Frankly, I sort of expect her to if this book does well because now she has a jumping-off platform for it. And now that the ending happened just that way it would allow her a chance to recreate everything which may prove to be epic..A new series that does not end in Breaking Dawn? Yes, I would read that.
Seriously, I am not ashamed to admit this – a reboot of the series? A chance to fix ALL THE PROBLEMS? Yeah, I’d hit that. Unabashedly.
Though, admittedly, she hasn’t done it 100% in this retelling, it’s a start. If she decides to harvest this cash cow I would drink the milk. Because, on some level, I do still love these books, despite all of my reservations and problems with them. The part of me that loves drama and loves seeing characters make mistakes guiltily loves these books. And my instant must-read reaction when I discovered this book existed only proves it.
4 out of 5 stars. For the ending alone. And for the potential possibility of a new world reborn.
– Follow the Reader –