There were a couple years in my life when I was really into Twilight.
I first read the book because my seventh-grade language arts teacher recommended it to me. I was looking for something new to read, and she suggested Twilight. I had seen other girls in my class reading the book, and recognized its iconic black cover with two cupped hands cradling a bright-red apple. It was a supernatural romance starring a teenage girl, so it sounded right up my alley.
Once I started reading it, I found it difficult to stop. I read the book under my desk during class, which was an unusual move for someone who cared about grades as much as I did. But the story had seized my attention, and refused to let go. I was just as entranced by the strange, beautiful vampires as Bella was. I finished the book in a couple days, and devoured the sequels just as quickly.
I had transferred schools in the seventh grade – moving from a small charter school that followed the Waldorf educational model to a large public middle school. I chose to make the switch, because there were about 25 students in my class at the charter school and I hadn’t succeeded in making friends with any of them. For much of my three years at that school, spending time with books was a much more attractive option to me than socializing with my peers. I would spend recesses sitting in a corner of the playground, reading Harry Potter or a Tamora Pierce novel. My transition to the public school went smoothly enough, and eventually I would make good friends – some of whom I’m still close to now, a decade later. But as a shy twelve-year-old in a new school, I was used to getting lost in books, and relating better to fictional characters than to my classmates.
Twilight wasn’t just an escapist tool for me, though. It was something in common with my peers, because everyone was reading these books. I discussed the merits of Edward versus Jacob with my Girl Scout troop. My neighbors and I all preordered Breaking Dawn, and lined up outside our local bookstore at midnight so we could read it as soon as possible. I checked Stephenie Meyer’s blog religiously. I kept up with all the news about the movie adaptation, and my friends and I made judgements on the casting choices. I would eventually dip my toe in writing fanfiction for the series, giving me an online community with which to further discuss the books.
And then there was a turning point, as there seemed to be in most Twilight fans’ lives: I realized that Twilight was bad, and stupid, and I had been a fool for liking it. At least, that’s how I felt when I was sixteen. As time passed, I only found more reasons to dislike it; I became critical of the power dynamics between Bella and her romantic interests, and the way the books passed off controlling and even stalker-like behavior as romantic. I still saw the movies when they came out, but now it was to laugh at their absurdity, alongside my friends who were also defected fans.
So when I reread Twilight last year, I fully expected that I wouldn’t enjoy it. I thought that there would be parts that entertained me, because they were so ridiculous or poorly-written. I assumed that, reading through it as an adult with more knowledge, I would find a lot more problematic content that middle school me hadn’t been able to recognize. And I was curious to see if I could find anything that explained why I was so head-over-heels for these books at one point in time.
I did find a lot to criticize, but it also wasn’t as much of a disaster as I had anticipated.
Twilight has a variety of failings as a story. Our protagonist, Bella, doesn’t feel like a fully-formed character. Her lack of definable personality makes it hard to empathize with her or understand her actions. The nullity of her character also causes the central romance to fall flat. Reading it now, I find it hard to decipher what Edward and Bella like about each other as people. They’re mutually fascinated by each other – Edward is a mystery to Bella, since he’s a supernatural being, and Bella is a mystery to Edward, because she’s the only person whose mind he can’t read. They’re physically attracted to each other, although Edward’s attraction to Bella also seems conflated with his desire to drink her blood. But what do they have in common, or enjoy about each other’s company? There are a few references to them having similar tastes in music, but it doesn’t seem like much to build a relationship on.
Then there are the concerning aspects of their relationship: the overstepping of boundaries, the inappropriate behavior in the name of supposed love. Edward does totally unacceptable things, such as follow Bella out of town while she’s going shopping with some classmates. These actions are later justified by the story – while on the shopping trip, Bella is accosted by a group of ill-intentioned men, so when Edward shows up to save her it’s a relief that he was stalking her. This pattern replays throughout the book: Edward does something creepy or controlling, but the disturbing means are justified by the end result of keeping Bella safe. This kind of rationalization apparently worked on me when I was an adolescent. Now I have knowledge about how healthy relationships work, so I know how gross a lot of it is. But as an impressionable twelve-year-old it all read romantic.
But there were parts of the book that I legitimately enjoyed, all these years later. There are lines that are genuinely funny. The descriptions of the town of Forks and the nearby La Push reservation make them feel alive and real. The most engaging parts of the story are the backstories — Edward’s family of vampires are all given distinct personalities and backgrounds. Meyer proves here that she is capable of creating complex characters – nearly every member of the Cullen family is a character I want to see explored in more depth. There’s Carlisle, the morally fraught doctor who suppresses his bloodlust so thoroughly that he can work in a hospital. There’s Rosalie, who was robbed of her humanity by men who assaulted her, and wants nothing more than to be human again. There’s Alice, whose precognitive abilities branded her as insane while she grew up in the early twentieth century, but as a vampire allowed her to find a loving family after a life of isolation. Compared to these characters, Bella feels even more boring and undeveloped. Later in the series, there’s the added intrigue of the werewolf pack. This introduces political complexity, both internal to the werewolves as well as in their relationship to the vampires. It adds new elements of mythology and fantasy to complicate the character relationships. Those are things that I loved when I first read the series, and they’re things that I still think are valuable.
I could also see the ways in which my younger self might have been more drawn in than I am now. Bella’s lack of character was probably desirable when I first read the book – the protagonist was a mostly blank slate onto which I could project myself. One of her few definitive personality traits is that she likes books, and I can see that appealing to me when I was younger. Bella was an awkward loner who retreated into stories – just like me. I wouldn’t have understood the Wuthering Heights parallels Meyer was trying to draw, though.
In rereading Twilight, I was curious. I wanted to come to it without the reflexive judgement that I’d felt towards it for years. I knew that parts of it were going to be problematic, which was true. I knew that parts of it weren’t going to be well-written, and that was also accurate. But I did find things worth holding onto, and I uncovered some of the reasons that these books once meant so much to me. As a young, introverted girl, I was able to lose myself in the exciting fantasy of this story – that a similarly awkward, bookish girl could discover a world of magic and danger and romance. The intrigue of Meyer’s universe and the drama of the plot drew me in, and the failings of the story went over my head. As an adult, I’ve found some middle ground between my volatile feelings towards Twilight while I was growing up – it isn’t as perfect as my once-obsessed self believed, but nor is it as detestable as I thought as an older teenager. Twilight is at best a mediocre story, but it came to me when I needed a fantasy world to fall into and the feeling of belonging that comes with sharing an obsession with others. •
Jenna Remley graduated from NYU, where she studied literature, creative writing, and linguistics. She’s been writing stories for as long as she can remember. She loves learning odd facts, visiting new places, and pomegranate lip balm. You can find her on Twitter.