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Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, August 10, 2008

BREAKING DAWN

By Stephenie Meyer

MT Books/Little Brown. 756 pp. $22.99

Origin stories are as important to bestselling novelists as they are to superheroes. J.K. Rowling hunched over a table in an Edinburgh coffee shop, scrawling Harry Potter in longhand while her baby napped; Stephen King sat in the laundry room of his snowbound trailer, banging out Carrie on an old typewriter. Readers want to believe there's something heroic, even magical, about the birth of the characters and stories they become obsessed with. Stephenie Meyer, author of the wildly popular Twilight series of young adult vampire romances, has her own creation myth: Her first book came to her in a dream about an ordinary mortal girl encountering a boy vampire of unearthly beauty. Meyer woke up and, after tending to her young children, began to write the story that became Twilight. So far it's sold 1.5 million copies. Last weekend, Breaking Dawn, the final book in the series, sold 1.3 million copies in its first 24 hours. Not bad for a night's sleep.

Twilight (2005) had a simple, teen-friendly plot: plain, clumsy, dull Bella becomes the Chosen One of Edward, the hottest -- actually, coldest -- guy in high school. Much is made of vampire Edward's granite-hard, icy lips and chest, as well as the fact that Bella's scent drives him to a frenzy of erotic longing and bloodlust. But Edward and his adopted vampire family are "vegetarians"; they survive by hunting animals rather than humans. Still, physical proximity to mortals remains a torment to these vampires, and a dead end for humans. As a result, the 17-year-old Bella and immortal Edward can't even think of consummating their relationship, or progress beyond light petting. If Edward loses control of himself, Bella is in danger of losing her life and soul, along with her maidenhead. (Though it's never spelled out explicitly, the specter of unrestrained teenage sex haunts these books: The sequence becomes an increasingly bizarre allegory of sexual abstinence.) Meyer's prose seldom rises above the serviceable, and the plotting is leaden, but Twilight is really all about unrequited female erotic yearning. It's like reading a young teenage girl's blog, boosted with enough of Meyer's made-up vampire lore to give it some mild narrative and sexual tension.

New Moon (2006), Meyer's second novel, was an improvement, largely because it centered on Bella's new love interest -- Jacob, a teen werewolf who acts like a real kid rather than a beautiful, unattainable love object. Problem: Werewolves and vampires are, like, mortal enemies. Whom will Bella choose? The answer will not be a surprise, unless these are the only two books you have ever read.

Book Three, Eclipse (2007), was a disappointment, never delivering an epic werewolf-bloodsucker smackdown, though it provides more of the vampires' backstory (ancient origins, ruling triumvirate who all resemble Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine, lots of ominous vampiric hissing, etc.). Jacob, so sympathetically portrayed in New Moon, unexpectedly morphs into an obnoxious thug who comes close to date rape in his dealings with Bella, who remains an insufferable bore. All she wants is for Edward to make an honest vampire of her, so they can finally get married and -- well, you know.

Educators, readers and parents have all made much of the fact that the Twilight series promotes a wholesome version of teen love for its dreamy, predominantly female readership, citing how the books' protagonists practice abstinence (as opposed to, say, the lewd excesses of Harry Potter's cohort, or those out-of-control Pevensie kids).

Yet there's something distinctly queasy about the male-female dynamic that emerges over the series' 2,446 pages. Edward has been frozen at the age of 17. But he was born in 1901, and he doesn't behave anything like a real teenager. He talks and acts like an obsessively controlling adult male. He sounds far more like a father than a boyfriend, and Bella's real father remains a detached if benign figure. Bella consistently describes herself as stupid, accident-prone, unworthy of her beloved's affection. Edward incessantly warns her not to hurt herself, and indeed she makes enough trips to the emergency room that it's a wonder social services never investigates her home life. Her clumsiness leaves her bruised or bleeding (the blood offers a perpetual temptation to Edward); she's described as breakable, physically small despite her average height. Edward's habit of constantly pulling her onto his lap or having her ride on his back further emphasize her childlike qualities; she also faints easily, and during the course of the series is carried by various characters, male and female.

And there are constant reminders that she's not responsible for the effect she has on Edward or Jacob. This bland passivity has been excused as a way of allowing female readers to project themselves into Bella's place, but the overall effect is a weird infantilization that has repellent overtones to an adult reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).

This ick factor goes through the roof in Breaking Dawn, which is, frankly, dreadful. It's difficult to imagine teenage girls identifying with 18-year-old Bella's marriage to Edward shortly after her high school graduation, especially when the wedding is followed by an extended soft-focus honeymoon sequence, which is almost immediately followed by Bella's sudden loss of appetite and puking in the bathroom.

Yes, she's pregnant. And because conception occurred while Bella was still mortal, the fetus is a vampire-human hybrid, growing at an unnatural rate and gifted with such supernatural strength that when it kicks inside the womb, it breaks Bella's ribs.

It gets worse: Breaking Dawn has a childbirth sequence that may promote lifelong abstinence in sensitive types. And it becomes downright surreal when the lovelorn lycanthrope Jacob gets romantically imprinted on Bella's newborn daughter, Renesmee, a blood-slurping newborn nicknamed Nessie (for the Loch Ness monster). This imprinting is a werewolf thing: Jacob's 14-year-old friend earlier imprinted on a toddler, with the implication that she will eventually become his mate.

Reader, I hurled.

Breaking Dawn's last 100 pages attempt to create yet another epic showdown, this time with the ancient vampire hierarchy. But even this ends in a damp fizzle. The most devoted readers will no doubt try to make excuses for this botched novel, but Meyer has put a stake through the heart of her own beloved creation. ยท

Elizabeth Hand's novel "Generation Loss" recently received the first Shirley Jackson Award.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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