Bad Reputation Book Club: Twilight

Bad Reputation Book Club is a monthly book review series where Autumn James Haworth looks at books that have been critically panned and discusses whether or not these reputations are deserved. This month, he’s taking a look at Twilight.

Autumn James Haworth is a bi and trans author from the north of England. He likes to write short stories and poetry all about mental health, growing up and falling in love.

Warning: Spoilers ahead, duh.

I couldn’t put myself through another erotica, so I headed to a bad reputation classic. What better salve to alien erotica than vampire romance?

Welcome back to the Bad Reputation Book Club. This month, we’re diving into Stephenie Meyer’s debut novel, Twilight, and discussing whether it deserves its bad reputation.

Content Warnings:

  • Blood
  • Stalking
  • Violence
  • Gaslighting

The preface is a pondering on death relating to the book as a whole and is directly linked to a scene near the end of the novel. The plot starts by introducing our awkward, clumsy, ‘not like other girls but just like you’ protagonist, Bella Swan. She’s moving from her mother’s in sunny Phoenix Arizona to her father’s in dreary Forks Washington. She’s not stoked about moving, but feels she has to due to her mum and stepdad moving around for work.

Charlie, her police-chief father, picks her up from the airport. It’s a little awkward, but they don’t see each other that often so that’s expected.

On the drive home, Charlie tells Bella that he’s got her a car on the cheap. It’s a reliable old pick-up from his friend, Billy Black from the Native American reservation, though Meyer calls them Indians, which isn’t ideal. Bella isn’t sure about the car in theory, but when she sees it she’s instantly in love.

First day of school: Bella gets all her paperwork from reception and, as she parks her car, she spots the only modern car – a silver Volvo. It’s a nice little touch showing how Bella is noticing Edward early on, even if she’s not aware of it.

At the end of her first class, she meets Eric; he’s one of a select bunch who become Bella’s friend group. There’s also Jessica, Mike, Angela, and Tyler. When she sits at lunch with her new friends, she spots the Cullens for the first time. It’s immediately clear that there’s something Other about this group, but Bella just puts it down to their incredible beauty. There’s Edward, Alice, Emmett, Rosalie and Jasper. Alice and Jasper are together, as are Emmett and Rosalie. They’re the adopted children of Dr Carlisle and Esme Cullen. The doctor is noted to seem really young to have five near-adult kids.

Bella heads into her next class, biology, and what a surprise (sarcasm) the only seat left is next to the only single Cullen, Edward. He’s really quiet and tense for the whole class, and Bella can’t help but think there’s something wrong with her. She’s checking if she stinks, meanwhile, as we find out later on, inside Edward’s head is just kill… kill … kill. I don’t know if I’m supposed to find this funny, but I sure do.

She walks to gym class with Mike who notes Edward’s unusual behaviour. Mike is also being weirdly forward in a way that shows Meyer really knows how to write irritating teenage boys, especially the nice guy type.

When Bella gets to reception to return some paperwork, Edward is there trying to change biology class in his schedule.

The next day, Edward isn’t at school and this prompts Bella to ask Charlie about the Cullens at dinner. He’s quick to heap praise on Carlisle and the children. He’s apparently a great doctor, and Charlie can’t help but say how polite the kids are. There’s also just something about Carlisle. All the vampires are beautiful, but every time he’s mentioned, his beauty is referenced. I love that for him.

The weekend passes with ease and Edward is back at school on Monday. Bella and Edward speed through the class task together, which is a nice little suggestion that there’s something going on with Edward. Bella did this at her old school, whereas Edward has done this before in his years of bouncing between schools, to hide the vampirism. It’s a great bit of subtlety.

Edward asks about why Bella moved to Forks. It feels almost confrontational but serves as a good exposition dump where we get into Bella’s stepdad playing baseball and having to move about a lot because of that.

The next day, Bella gets to school, and as she’s stepping out of her truck, someone swerves towards her in their car. Though he was standing about four cars away, Edward swoops in front of her, stopping the crashing car with his back. Despite Bella having seen him stood far away, Edward insists he was right by her. The gaslighting starts early which is an incredibly unhealthy way to start a relationship. If he’d have said that he was unharmed due to adrenaline that might have been okay. He doesn’t want to admit to vampirism yet. A white lie is far less rancid than gaslighting a love interest.

At the hospital, Edward checks up on Bella. We also meet Carlisle Cullen. Before Bella leaves, Edward continues the gaslighting, leaving her clueless as to what she can trust.

Once back at school, Bella learns of the ‘girls’ choice’ dance. Mike thinks Bella will ask him but it’s actually their friend, Jess, who wants to go with him. Despite it being girls’ choice, Eric and Tyler ask her, but she says she’s not going as she’ll be in Seattle. I can’t help but feel that Bella is a little dull to be having so many people interested in her. Perhaps it’s just a case of her being a curiosity as the new girl.

Afterwards, Edward vaguely warns Bella to stay away from him, but immediately becomes friendly with her the next day. It’s in scenes like this I can see what E.L. James was trying to emulate. That hot and cold can work but it shouldn’t be so fast, otherwise it feels more like red flags than fun romantic games. He even asks if he can go with her to Seattle less than twenty-four hours after asking her to stay away.

They sit at lunch together, and not only is he being cryptic, but he’s also blatantly telling her he’s dangerous, and she’s fine with it. I know the vampires are meant to be these incredibly alluring creatures, but I feel like there are limits. If a prospective partner looks at you and goes ‘I am dangerous,’ get as far away as possible. They’re not the sexy bad boy type, they’re just bad.

Edward isn’t in biology, but it’s because they’re doing work with blood. It’s another little hint about his truth. However, Bella gets faint about the blood. Mike takes her to the nurse but is sent back to class by Edward.

At the weekend, there’s a trip with her friends to the beach on the reservation. She meets Jacob Black there (son of the man who sold Charlie the truck). There’s light flirtation between them, which is a little uncomfortable as Bella is nearly eighteen and Jacob just turned fifteen. He’s mostly there (narratively speaking) to explain the ‘Cold Ones’ myth to Bella and to say that the Cullens can’t go on the reservation because that’s what they are. This kickstarts Bella thinking about what Edward really is, so that night, she does some research. She concludes that Edward must be a vampire. I did enjoy remembering that this was written in 2005 with the appearance of dial-up.

One day after school, Bella helps her friends choose their dance outfits. At some point, she leaves them to find a bookstore, saying she’ll meet them an hour later for dinner. However, she gets lost and followed by a group of men seeking to attack her. Edward shows up out of nowhere to save the day. Yes, it’s good that she’s safe, but she got saved by a guy stalking her.

Edward comes clean about his vampirism over dinner (her friends ate while she was missing). Bella is incredibly calm about her crush being a mind-reading vampire. We learn more about vampirism on the drive back to Bella’s including that the Cullens are ‘vegetarians’ – they only drink animal blood.

Honestly, a lot of this book feels like filler. I look past a lot in my re-telling as it feels like a lot of scenes that could be cut or merged because they’re all the same thing. This is especially the case for the school scenes.

Billy and Jacob Black warn Bella about the Cullens. Bella listens but knows she won’t take the advice. Rather than heading to Seattle on the day of the dance, Bella spends the day with Edward going through the woods, into a secluded meadow. Here, Edward intends to show Bella his skin in the sun.

Think what you will about sparkly vampires, the first description of Edward shining like fine jewellery is genuinely beautiful. It’s exactly as enticing as it needs to be. It makes sense though, as this is the first scene that Meyer conceptualised. While it isn’t perfect, there’s clearly a lot of heart in this scene, and I imagine it’s had the most time spent on it. The ‘perfect predator’ part is a little bit unintentionally comical, but it’s also teenage angst at its finest.

Now feels like a good time to talk about the age gap in their relationship. Usually, the issue raised with age gaps is that they can be predatory. The thing is their relationship is already predatory because it’s between a vampire and a human. The age gap is the least of their problems. It’s not to say it isn’t an issue. Edward talking about how he felt like he was waiting for her to be born did make him sound like a creep.

‘You are exactly my brand of heroin’ is a line that’s never going to leave me be, and I don’t think I need to comment on it further.

When Edward takes Bella home, it’s revealed that he has been watching her sleep for a while. He’s already admitted to following her once, then this. Bella only cares about what he heard in her sleep-talking. Why is she so calm?

Edward stays the night. They kiss but go no further because Edward says he’s too powerful and is worried about damaging her fragile human body. I don’t think I was supposed to find this funny.

They head out to visit the Cullens in the morning, and there’s a comical moment where Edward is overwhelmed by Bella in the most conservative outfit.

They meet everyone bar Rosalie and Emmett. Rosalie is jealous of Bella’s humanity. Emmett is trying to talk Rosalie around to supporting Edward’s choices. During introductions, Esme, asks Edward to play the piano. By the end of his playing, Bella is crying. For some reason Edward wipes the tear and tastes it. There’s then a tour of the house and Carlisle’s history which kind of makes me wish this book were about him.

When Edward drops Bella back at home, the Blacks arrive at the same time. Edward calls Jacob a child, ignoring that his girlfriend isn’t that much older than him, all things considered. Bella even calls him out on this, and his response is ‘I know’ which felt really uncomfortable. Afterwards, Edward makes himself scarce while Bella receives another warning from Billy. This time she’s more standoffish.

Later that evening, Bella reveals to Charlie that she’s dating Edward. It’s a surprise, but he’s good with it and, honestly, bless Charlie. He’s doing his best, and while bumbling at times, you can tell he’s trying.

Edward picks Bella up for baseball. When they get to the woods, Edward says he’ll have to carry Bella and run with her which made her sick last time. Edward ‘gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss’ Cullen goes so quickly from charming to repulsive. Rather than easing her worries, he says, ‘it seems I’m going to have to tamper with your memory.’ I almost get this behaviour at first when he’s actively trying to push her away, but when he’s given up on that and enters a relationship with her, he can stop. Romanticising toxicity like this, especially in a book for teens, leaves me incredibly uneasy.

I didn’t want to bring up the movie, but the baseball scene kind of asks for it. It’s arguably the most iconic scene of the film, and while the book’s description is good, it feels like it’s missing something. It think it’s a scene that was made to be seen and not read. I do recommend listening to Supermassive Black Hole to get in the mood though; it really helps. I can’t fault this scene because, if I hadn’t seen the film, I’d have adored it. I like that they can only play during storms because they hit the ball so hard, they need people to pass the sound off as thunder; that’s great fun.

During the game, a trio of vampires arrive. There’s a hunter amongst them, James, who sets his sights on Bella meaning he’ll stop at nothing to feed from her. This conflict comes out of nowhere. We go from feeling like there are no real stakes (pun intended) to suddenly: BELLA IS BEING HUNTED AND WILL DIE IF WE DON’T ACT NOW! There’s no real build up to this, and that’s a shame because this part of the story is great. It just would’ve been better if there was better foreshadowing.

They come up with a plan to get Bella to safety, making sure Charlie is safe too. Credit where it’s due, Meyer made sure the scene where Bella has to make sure her dad won’t come after her is a real gut punch.

Bella is stationed with Alice (who gets visions of the future) and Jasper (who can regulate everyone’s mood). While hiding out, Alice gets a vision of a room that, when described, Bella recognises as her old ballet studio, right by the house that her mother should be returning to shortly. Bella calls her leaving a message.

Thinking it’s her mum, Bella answers a call, but it’s James on the other side talking her through the call so Alice and Jasper don’t suspect anything. Once alone, she accepts that she’ll have to find a way to get to the studio on her own due to the threat placed on her mother’s life. She makes her getaway at the airport (where they’re meeting Edward) leaving via the bathroom.

When she gets to the studio, she’s tricked into thinking her mother is there via a TV playing a home-video. This is a trap by James who’s not only there to drink from her, but also to make her suffer. Bella breaking as she hits the mirror is so visceral. That line feels like multiple blows that you’re taking with her. Honestly? That whole scene is the best in the book. It’s hard to read, as it should be. It’s incredible writing.

Edward saves the day, taking James out and sucking the vampire venom out of Bella’s blood without going too far. It’s a great way to end this scene because it’s like the tension being slowly released. It brings everything back down, and I really like that.

Bella wakes up in hospital wondering why Edward didn’t just let her change into a vampire. He wants her to hold onto her humanity as long as possible. Maybe this is a controversial take, but I really commend Meyer’s choice to not have Bella be turned so early on. I feel like that would’ve almost been easy but focussing as much on humanity as vampirism is kind of unusual in vampire romances. I think this is a great choice.

Once out of hospital, Edward surprises Bella by taking her to prom to make sure she’s enjoying human rights of passage. The book ends with Edward leaning in to kiss Bella’s neck.

Overall, I don’t think this deserves the reputation it has, at least for the reasons I usually see. Sparkly vampires and low-key plain protagonists aren’t the reasons to view this book negatively. The issue comes from the poor portrayal of relationships in a teen book. Thankfully, it’s mostly adults reading this for the nostalgia factor, but that still doesn’t make it alright. The writing itself is good though, and it is genuinely entertaining. It’s got problems, but it doesn’t deserve to be panned.

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