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Monday, September 01, 2008

Breaking Dawn: A Critique

WARNING: This post involves the latest in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. So if you haven't read it and plan to, there will be SPOILERS. And if you have read it and love it, you might not be so happy with me. And let me also say that this post does not in any way represent the opinions of the rest of the Face the Page gang; my comments are solely my own.
I read through the first three books very quickly, and I give them credit for being good escape material. But throughout the books, there are some fundamental problems with the writing and the structure of the story. All four of the books could easily be 200 pages shorter than they are. Each book has a sagging middle of over 100 pages where nothing happens. And the central relationship is stagnant; it doesn't evolve throughout the four books. The only book in the series where the relationship differs at all is New Moon - because Edward isn't in most of that book - and perhaps that's why that book is my favorite of the four.
Throughout the journey of a novel, a character should change and grow through the obstacles they face and overcome. The story should be propelled by the choices that a character makes and the consequences of those choices. But throughout the four Twilight books, the main character, Bella, doesn't change much at all. She doesn't grow. And she doesn't make her own choices; she doesn't make things happen. Things happen TO her, and then someone else steps in and makes it okay. She doesn't solve any of her own problems. And then, magically, everything turns out perfectly for her. She doesn't have to make any tough decisions and therefore doesn't have to face any consequences. And as a result, there's very little conflict or tension in any of the novels, but particularly Breaking Dawn.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Along the way, Meyer misses a thousand opportunities to provide real conflict. Instead of forcing Bella to make the conscious and deliberate choice to become a vampire, she cops out and has her die (after the out-of-nowhere pregnancy storyline that has no grounding in any of the first three books). A huge opportunity is missed when Jacob imprints on Renesmee; it could have set into a motion a terrific war between the werewolves and the vampires. But once again Meyer takes the easy way out and clears up that conflict in a paragraph. And instead of providing fantastic inner conflict by having Bella as a newborn vampire be dangerous and out of control, Meyer takes the ultimate cop-out and has Bella be the exceptional vampire who has unheard-of self-control. I personally think Bella should have lost control and killed Charlie. Talk about consequences!
Many people compare the Twilight series to the Harry Potter series, and I'm sure you all know which books I consider superior. But here's the reason. Throughout all seven Harry Potter books, all the characters - ALL of them - change and grow. They make mistakes and they learn from them. They fail. Things don't work out for them. They lose people, and they grieve. Relationships deepen. These are flesh and blood characters who have real lives. Despite the fact that they are witches and wizards, they don't live in a fairy tale. Most importantly, as the books progress, you can see J.K. Rowling progress as a writer. I love that. She changed and grew along with her characters. I didn't see any of that kind of growth or progress throughout the four Twilight books. (I haven't read Meyer's stand-alone novel, The Host, so I would be interested to see if that is any different.)
I, however, have learned a lot from reading her books. I've learned how crucial it is to keep asking your characters, "what will make it worse?", instead of "what will make it better?" Coddling your characters does not a good story make. How much more tension would the last 100 pages of Breaking Dawn had if Bella had had mere hours to prepare for the confrontation with the Volturi! I actually laughed out loud when one of the characters said, "We only have a few weeks to prepare!" Talk about taking all the air out of a scene.
I've learned that if the main character sets the story (and conflict) into motion, your book will be infinitely more interesting. How much more gut-wrenching would it have been if Bella, knowing all that she is giving up and all the pain she will cause her parents, turned to Edward and said, "Ok. I'm ready," and bared her throat to him. Instead, that decision is made for her.
And I've learned that happy endings aren't always satisfying. Happy endings are satisfying when the main character has fought hard, sacrificed some things along the way, and learned some difficult lessons. Happy endings are not satisfying when everything falls into the character's lap. Let's be honest - we don't root for that type of person in real life; we root for the underdog, the person who has to struggle to succeed. Why should we be expected to root for someone who always falls into a bed of roses in our fiction?
I can't argue with Meyer's success, and when it comes down to it, anything that gets teens reading is A Good Thing. But I've read many other books for teens that satisfy all of my complaints with the Twilight series - our own Linda Gerber's Death By series, not to mention her two SASS books where the central female characters learn and grow immensely, Libba Bray's fantastic The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, and anything by Celia Rees. I urge readers to check these out, and escape with these well-rounded, fully-realized, flesh-and-bone characters.

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