|With thanks Kendra Leighton and Chelley Toy for the pics!|
And now... My review of Life & Death by Stephenie Meyer (henceforth referred to as Smeyer in the grand old Zoë-Trope tradition) which is, in case you've been peacefully snoozing in a woodland grotto for the past week, a genderbent retelling of her internationally bestselling YA vampire novel Twilight. (Guys, you have no idea how hard I had to look to find a link that wasn't spoilery! I'm not going to spoil anyone with this review if I can help it, by the way - there will be spoilers, but they'll be hidden under a cut at the end so you can avoid).
Yes, that's right. Smeyer went ahead and did a genderbent AU of her own novel to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the book's publication. When I heard this I actually had to check the date because I thought it couldn't possibly be serious - it had to be April Fool's, right? But no. It was really true! And then I couldn't decide if I thought it was the worst train-wreck-you-can't-look-away-from idea ever or the best thing I'd heard since Taylor Swift released 'Wildest Dreams' on single. What? Just... I mean... WHAT?!?
Longtime blog readers know that in the past I have taken issue with Twilight (although that was before everyone else started making a career out of slamming it, by which point it seemed a little mean-spirited) and have on occasion chosen to use it to illustrate dos and don'ts of writing. So why would I be interested in buying my very own copy of a book in which the author had presumably simply pressed 'Find' and 'Replace' on the names and had the whole thing rebound for a quick anniversary cash-grab? Well, two reasons, muffins:
1) I genuinely enjoyed Smeyer's later novel The Host, and thought it showed a marked improvement in her ability as both a craftsperson and storyteller. I believed (rightly as it turned out) that she wouldn't be able to resist meddling in more than a superficial way with this new version of her story, and I wanted to see if she could substantially improve it.
2) I love fanfic! Some of my favourite fanfic is Twilight AUs where people change one significant detail about the story and make it awesome. If I'm willing to read it on A03, I should be willing to read the author's own take, right?
So here's the book's deal. Bella has become Beau (short for Beaufort, ikr) and Edward is now Edythe (ha ha ha. Ahem. No, apparently there was at least one real live person called Edythe during the period that Edward would have been alive, so... we just have to go with it. And thanks for that link, Sally!).
But Smeyer has done more than this. She has also changed the gender of almost every other character in the book, including all the vampires except one, a couple of minor non-speaking roles, and Bella - sorry, Beaufort's - parents, Renee and Charlie (and Phil). She states this is because she finds it tough to believe an unemployed father would have been given custody of a baby back in the 80s when Beau was born, and... eh, maybe she's right. What this change makes clear, though, is how dominated by male characters (major, minor and incidental) the story was previously. Life and Death feels stuffed full of women instead, which just shows how easily we forget that women are actually 52% of the planet's population.
Now, in Smeyer's interviews about this book, and in her author's note, she says that she decided to bend the genders (by the way, I'm using 'bend' rather than 'swap' to describe this because I think it better acknowledges that there are, in fact, more than two genders in the world) of her characters because she was sick of seeing people talk about Bella as a damsel in distress. She felt the character only got flak for being obsessed with love/sparkly vampires as a result of being a girl. I think she wanted to show that these choices in characterisation were nothing to do with Bella's gender and everything to do with being a human playing in a world of monsters and magic.
Did she succeed in this? Not really, to be honest. Not necessarily because she's wrong in her point about how we respond to male versus female characters, though. More on that anon. I think Smeyer's mistake is she fell into that trap herself - she even acknowledges it (albeit without apparently realising she's done so). She states straight out in her author's note that Beau's personality 'developed' differently than Bella's. Her opinion on this is that Beau is merely less angry than Bella, doesn't carry a chip on his shoulder like his female counterpart, and is 'more OCD'.
But Smeyer is wrong. Bella never came across as particularly angry or OCD (not loving the casual flinging about of this mental illness, btw, but we'll give benefit of the doubt and assume she really does mean her character has a very mild form of obsessive compulsive disorder, rather than that she's using the term to be cute). Bella never came across as having a chip on her shoulder. She never came across as much of ANYTHING, really.
Bella is a personality void in the story. A list of traits which the other characters respond to as if they were real, but which are never truly demonstrated to us, the readers, in a way that makes her feel alive.
And that is the main difference between Life and Death and Twilight. Because Beau? Actually has a personality.
Yes, the story makes it clear that he possesses the same rather generic list of traits which are all we really know about Bella - the clumsiness, the social awkwardness/shyness, the reserve, the apparent ingrained need to cook and clean, the liking for classic literature - but either because of a natural increase in Smeyer's skill or because she sympathises with male characters more (Edward was always her writer's pet, after all) Beau manages to seem like an actual person on the page.
Despite moaning about looking after his mother, whining about the move to Forks, failing to connect with Charlie, and mocking/snarking about his classmates in exactly the same way (sometimes in almost identical words) to Bella, Beau is immediately vastly more sympathetic as a character. At first I felt that this was my own internal misogyny (yes, we all have it) telling me that a boy in the position of caring for his mother since childhood, and forced out of his home by her all-consuming love for her new husband, was more interesting and worthy of respect than a girl in a similar position.
And perhaps that is partly true. But what is also true is that Smeyer's other changes, large and small, mean that Beau seems like a real, awkward teen, dealing awkwardly with being put in an awkward position. He seems to have some degree of inner life. He doesn't express himself with the same stilted formality that Bella does, doesn't seem to have his life on pause waiting for someone to come along and give it meaning. He demonstrates traits within the action of the story instead of relying on his narration to inform us of them. We can see that while he's shy and awkward, he's also an incredibly laid back type. He doesn't worry much about the future. He has a sense of humour that isn't limited to making deprecating cracks at his classmates. He's aware of his own faults but seems to have at least some sense of self and even self-esteem. Maybe this was how Smeyer always saw Bella. But at the time of writing Twilight she didn't have the skill to show us any of it. Now she does.
Something else Smeyer gets right in L&D is to immediately make explicit the fact that Charlie chose to leave Beau with Renee not because he believed it was best for Beau, but because he knew 'Renee needed him'. Charlie gets a lot of sympathy in Twilight because of Bella's apparent indifference to him. He's cast in many people's eyes as a perfect, loving father with an ungrateful, cold off-spring. Reading in this new version that Charlie prioritised the well-being of his scatty ex-wife over that of his small child, and that Beau consequently was balancing Renee's chequebook and doing her laundry as soon as he could add up and reach the buttons on the washing machine - and that Charlie knew this and approved! - makes Beau's lack of interest in his dad, and his abrupt, overwhelming attachment not only to Edythe (protective, caring Edythe) but to her helicopter family seem much more logical.
When Beau meets Edythe not only is his reaction to her much more immediately romantic - and less filled with terror and hurt - it is also intensely physical. Bella is obsessed with Edward mostly, it seems, because he was mean to her, and then saved her life and was mean to her again. When the realisation comes that she's in love with him it seems to come out of nowhere. But Beau is unequivocally obsessed with Edythe from the start because he finds her hot and sexy and gorgeous and just can't believe she might look sideways at a normal guy like him, and it's clear that he knows it's not sensible or healthy - but he still wants her any way he can get her.
Because of this vital, profound difference between Bella and Beau - not in their genders but in their characters - it's much more difficult to compare Twilight and Life & Death than it might first appear. Having a central character, a first person narrator, who is sympathetic to some extent (although his blithering on about Edith's perfection is as boring as ever) makes a massive difference in the overall quality of the book.
Onto the other vampires of the Cullen clan! Dr Carlisle Cullen becomes Dr Carine Cullen - a Grace Kelly/Marilyn Monroe look-alike, but even more beautiful (pfft). The maternal, beautiful Esme becomes gentle stay-at-home husband Earnest, whose looks aren't really mentioned. Rosalie becomes Royal, dubbed 'the golden quarterback and homecoming king' by Beau, and possessor of a surprising man-bun. Emmett is Eleanor, a terrifyingly aggressive foil for Royal. Jasper is Jessamine, feline and spooky. Alice is Archie, and somehow becomes far less extreme, far warmer, less shrill (I hate to use that word for any female character, but come on) and more interesting in the process.
It's really telling to me how, in attempting to preserve the pre-bend traits of the younger vampires in their new genders, Smeyer instantly makes them more interesting. When all the female vampires suddenly become animalistic, intimidating and not-to-be-messed with, and the male ones are mostly described in terms of their hair and beauty it makes you realise how strongly gender-essentialist the book was in the first place. But Smeyer does some rapid work on the backstories of some characters here too, because apparently it wouldn't do to give a male character a history of having survived sexual assault, or a female one a past as a (terrible amateur) vampire hunter. Would it? *Raises eyebrow*
As for Edythe - she initially seems the least interesting of the bunch, although Smeyer goes to a lot of effort to switch up the descriptions of her to make it clear that she's super feminine. Her hair is strikingly 'metallic', leading me to believe it's more bright coppery-red than that famously ambiguous 'bronze' ascribed to Edward. She's tiny, but as graceful as a dancer (a description previously reserved for Alice). Her hands are described as 'little' and her eyes are 'long', although she does have 'surprisingly muscular' forearms (natch). Beau towers over her. It almost seems fitting for such a fairy-like creature to sparkle in the sunlight.
As the book progresses onward, however, Edythe also emerges as a distinct character from Edward. Freed of the need to act the Bryonic, tortured hero, Edythe keeps her (audible to Beau, anyway) self-loathing and self-castigation to a minimum, exhibits some interest in Beau as a person rather than as the vessel for floral-scented tastyblood (with thanks to Cleolinda) and an impenetrable mind, appears to have a rudimentary sense of humour herself, and offers convincing emotional vulnerability that actually makes the sudden, desperate connection between the two feel somewhat realistic.
OK, she's the definition of a manic pixie dream girl, and OK, she indulges in the same sort of weirdo stalker behaviour as her male counterpart. But she actually seems sorry, which is more then Edward ever does. What's more, her inhumanity, her alienness, are so much better established that it feels much easier to accept that she cannot be expected to conform to human behavioural norms. Beau's easy and unquestioning acceptance feels more like a reinforcement of his irrational crush rather than a death-wish.
Less wholesomely, Beau's repeated and loving descriptions of the hollows under Edythe's cheeks, her 'sharp' shoulder-blades, 'thin' arms, the 'fragile' 'twigs' of her collarbone, her 'vulnerable' slenderness and the fact that he can count her ribs makes it clear that part of Edythe's beauty is severe emaciation (presumably from having been half dead of Spanish 'flu when Carine transformed her). Beau not only notices this thinness; he clearly desires it desperately. It's a facet of her appeal. Something deeply whiggy is coming out of the author's subconscious there and I think these parts should have been edited responsibly before the book was published.
Another interesting thing that swims to light in this new version is how truly odd and out of place it appears when everyone in Beau's life, including Charlie, seems fixated on getting him paired off with a girl and attending the dance. I honestly can't remember if this plot point was hammered home with such verve in the original book. Maybe it's not. Or maybe we're all just much more used to seeing girls pressured to fall in love and focus on romance and defining themselves by relationships (preferably with boys). All I know is that by the time Beau finally confesses his and Edythe's relationship to his father, I was starting to think that Charlie was caught up in some kind of mortal panic that his son might be gay. Leave the kid alone!
More messed-up stuff comes in the form of Charlie *not* bothering to sabotage Beau's truck when he thinks his son is going to sneak off, as he does with Bella's in the same situation. Apparently only girl children need their autonomy physically restricted, kids! I also remain baffled by how a vampire who has been eavesdropping on both humans and vampires thinking about and having sex for nearly a hundred years, apparently manages to know absolutely nothing about it - a fact of the story that sadly remains unchanged.
Cool stuff comes from the new Volturi, who have a different line-up and a totally awesome history that took me by surprise. If only Smeyer had used this version in the original books and allowed them to be multidimensional people instead of pantomime villains! Also, there's less pointed victim-blaming from Edythe for Beau. I wonder why...
And now: spoilers!
Ultimately, though there are many fascinating differences between Smeyer's novel of 2005 and the one we're reading now in 2015, the major difference between Twilight and Life & Death is the new ending (which everyone and their aunt Bessie seems to have written an article about). And it's this new ending, in which Beau manages to escape from Jessamine and Archie at the airport five minutes earlier, and as a result gets beaten to a bloody pulp and is already in mid-transformation from tracker Joss' (not James') bite by the time the Cullens arrive, that makes the book indisputably superior to Twilight.
The ending of Twilight is about Edward. It's the Edward-is-the-perfect-boyfriend show. Demonstrating his (in Smeyer's eyes) heroic, pure love for Bella, and his astonishing self-control, he manages to suck the venom out of Bella's veins before she is transformed, without losing control and draining her dry. It's all a big metaphor for not having sex, and to me and many other readers, it can basically be summed up as Edward imposing his will on a helpless Bella (who is barely conscious for most of this and is informed of it later when she's in the hospital). He doesn't ask what she wants, and we all know that he could just as easily have killed her or left her with life-altering injuries - but he preferred that risk to seeing his perfect, human girlfriend, the representation of all the mortal goodness he believed he had lost, turned into a despicable vampire. Into his equal.
In Life and Death, the ending of the book belongs to Beau. Which is fitting, considering it's supposed to be his story. He remains conscious throughout, and is active mentally even though he's incapacitated physically.
When Edythe arrives and finds Beau bleeding to death, her first concern is to preserve his life. On discovering that he has been bitten she, too, attempts to suck the venom out - but Archie tells her without the venom in his veins Beau will die from his wounds. At which point, Edythe asks Beau what he wants. She gives him a choice - something that Edward never did in Twilight and continued to fail to do in any respect right through to the middle of Breaking Dawn when she finally became a vampire herself.
After she has Beau's precious consent to the transformation, Edythe wastes no time with self-indulgent self-loathing. She acts on Beau's wishes and bites him again, closer to his heart, to speed his transformation and spare him as much pain as possible.
In the new ending, instead of evil being soundly vanquished by the power of love, and life returning to its status quo with no long-term effects felt by anyone, there is a true cost to Beau's decision to risk his life to be with Edythe. In a very real sense, he loses his life. He pays the price in his deliberately cruel last words to his father and dismissive ones to his mother, neither of whom he can ever see again. Beau doesn't get to return to human life. He doesn't end up getting a bling-romantic wedding, and a miracle baby, and being allowed to stay in his family's life despite this requiring a re-write of the rules of the vampire world. The story doesn't close on a fairytale married young couple with a perfect family and perfect lives, heading straight into contented vampiric middle-age.
Instead, Beau goes through an agonising transformation, during which he begs for a death that it's too late to grant him, and then witnesses his own funeral, helpless to comfort his devastated parents or take back the decisions he hastily made.
Life and Death allows the reader to see Edythe and Beau as a couple of impulsive, not-too-bright kids, caught up in first love and stuck there forever because they're both dead and only the living can change. This bittersweet ending, which comes much closer to acknowledging the pitfalls of Beau and Edythe's relationship and everything entailed in giving up mortality, feels tangibly more emotional and genuine than anything Smeyer produced in her original saga.
Despite all the whiggy stuff in this new version of the story, I vastly prefer Life and Death to Twilight. But it doesn't do the job Smeyer wanted it to. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Instead of making us reassess and re-appreciate Twilight, see Bella in a new light and embrace the original as the true love story between equals that Smeyer's always maintained it was, it just makes us realise how lacking the first version was. Edward and Bella's relationship is an unhealthy dysfunctional mess. So is Edythe and Beau's - but at least in bending their genders Smeyer seems to have found the courage to allow them to admit this, and readers to be able to perceive it.
My verdict: Life and Death is not a great book. But it still makes Twilight feel like a lack-lustre first draft compared to a more polished, finished novel.
I wonder who they'll get for the film adaption...