Review re-post: "Life and Death" by Stephenie Meyer
[Reposting this review from my old site because I loved this book and the author finally published Midnight Sun, which I bought on pre-order but haven't read yet. References to Midnight Sun in this review refer to the partial draft that she released years ago.]
1. Breaking Dawn is my favorite book in the Twilight series.
2. I like Renesmee
3. I like Life and Death better than Twilight.
4. I wish Meyer would continue writing the rest of the series in the L&D-verse.
Some personal background
I first read Twilight right after the last book came out and before the first movie came out (not sure of the exact timeline there, but it was about the same time). So I was able to read them all in a row, which was great. I liked them. I don’t want to get into too much detail there because I plan to do a re-read and post reviews for them as I go. While I was reading Twilight, I was only a little ways in when I found out about Midnight Sun (I think that whole thing happened about this time as well). In my impatience, I paused my reading of Twilight to read what there was of Midnight Sun. Thus it was that I found out about things like Alice’s ability to see the future in Midnight Sun before reading about it in Twilight—and I found it much better handled in Midnight Sun. By assuming her readers already knew stuff like that, Meyer incorporated such information much more smoothly and naturally into Midnight Sun than she did in Twilight. In Midnight Sun I figured out that Edward could read minds and Alice could see visions by reading scenes of them doing those things. I was then disappointed when I read the part in Twilight where Edward is basically like, “I can read minds. Alice can see the future. Others of us have various other special powers and this is what they are.” This is pretty much the definition of show vs. tell and why showing generally works so much better. (I actually think Midnight Sun is—or would be—a much better book than Twilight. Mostly because vampires are more interesting than mopey teen girls. I love how in that scene where Edward and Bella meet, from her perspective she’s just obsessing about the hot weird guy and why he’s looking at her funny, and Edward’s calmly and deliberately calculating how he might best murder everyone in the room. That is why we need Midnight Sun right there.)
Okay, so that’s to say a couple things: yes, I am looking forward to her finishing Midnight Sun like so many other fans; and, having seen her do a similar “let’s just rewrite Twilight” thing with success before, I was very interested when I heard about her gender-bent (or gender-swapped, which mean exactly the same thing in my mind though apparently those terms confuse others) retelling.
Also, I want to comment on the reason she apparently wrote this version. Evidently it’s a response to those who’ve claimed that Twilight is sexist because Bella is a damsel in distress, with Meyer trying to show that it’s because Bella’s human, not because she’s female, that she’s in distress. In this, I’m not this book’s intended audience, because I never thought Twilight was particularly sexist. I think Bella is an idiot who makes stupid choices and has little to no survival instinct, but I think that’s because Bella’s an idiot and the author chose to write her that way (intentionally or not), not because the author was trying to say that all women are like this or any such thing. Incidentally, my views on Edward are mostly that he’s a far more interesting character before he falls for Bella and after he marries her. And, in dabbling in fanfic in this fandom several years back, I found that he made a much more interesting secondary rather than main character. But I’ll try to save the rest of my Twilight comments for my re-read reviews.
I decided to read Life and Death before doing a Twilight re-read in the hopes that I’d be better able to review this book on its own terms when I don’t have the original fresh in my mind.
(Warning: there are spoilers in this review.)
Even though, like I said, it’s been several years since I read Twilight and at least a couple since I sat down and watched the movies, it was immediately evident upon starting Life and Death that it’s still basically Twilight. I suppose I was hoping that she’d have started fresh, having the same basic storyline and characters in her mind, but writing a mostly new story. So yeah, it’s next to impossible to judge this book on its own terms unless you’re someone who has never read Twilight or seen the movies (and I’d imagine that most people for whom that’s true would be predisposed to dislike this book anyway, so even they would likely not be fair judges).
Some interesting things happened right away with Meyer’s decision to swap Bella’s gender (now Beau) but not Charlie and Renee’s. Now it seems like Renee is a scatterbrained woman who needs a man around to pay bills and generally keep things together (which isn’t really a great way to start off if your purpose is to show how Twilight isn’t sexist). Also, the awkward meeting between Beau and Charlie seems a lot more normal, two guys who just aren’t good with expressing themselves. With the parents staying the same genders, the introductory scenes actually seem more stereotypically sexist than they were before (if one is inclined to interpret everything in ‘sexist or not sexist’ terms). Meyer has an explanation for why she didn’t swap the parents’ genders—something about not thinking a single father like Renee would have gotten custody of a child at that time, which is a lot of thought to put into any aspect of realism considering the story we’re talking about. Sparkly vampires? No problem. A bohemian man getting custody of a child in the eighties? Now you’re just being stupid. I think she’d have been better off gender-swapping them along with everyone else. (Actually, despite what I just said, there’s something that feels right about Charlie still just being Charlie. I get the feeling that in any possible iteration of the world, Charlie will always be Charlie.)
On the other hand, the most interesting thing, lore-wise, that she changed in this version of the story was actually all about some other characters she didn’t gender-swap: the Volturi. Instead of gender-swapping them, she did something much more interesting which (potentially) drastically changes how the future of this story could play out. Aro is still Aro—but he was executed a long time ago and there are three different vampires in charge. There is no indication that the ones who are in charge are as greedy for power as Aro was, and no indication that they engage in the sort of powers-collecting that Aro did which made him and the Volturi such a threat to the Cullens. This has little to no effect on the story told in Life and Death, but it has a potentially huge effect on the possible future of this ’verse.
One curious thing, and this is pretty tiny, is that among the many changes (I would say almost entirely improvements) that Meyer did to the general language and writing was the deletion of a line that really stuck out to me when I read Twilight, and that is when they’re in the Italian restaurant and Bella complains about him dazzling the waitress, and Edward asks her, “Do I dazzle you?” I think that line is both memorable and kind of cheesy. Perhaps Meyer agreed with the cheesy part, because not only was it not in the movie but she removed it here as well (the same general thing happens, but the wording is different). Which is kind of funny when that “the lion fell in love with the lamb” dialogue is still in there, and I think that’s way cheesier.
Speaking of cheesy, Beau says “Holy crow” twice. I was really hoping maybe we’d avoid that. Seriously, does anyone actually say that?
(I haven’t read the copy of Twilight that’s included in this edition, but I don’t see any indication that any of the edits she made for non gender-swapping reasons were also changed in this anniversary edition of Twilight. Which, if that’s accurate, is very disappointing, as I think a lot of the changes would benefit the original book noticeably.)
I do have some criticisms, but I think they’re all things that were there in the original version. Beau lies too much for no apparent reason, which is weird since it’s pretty much stated that he didn’t lie much prior to meeting Edythe. There’s simply no reason for many of the lies he told or the things he kept from Charlie. Why would you not mention to your dad the sheriff that some hoodlums almost murdered you? That just seems weird to me, and I didn’t buy the explanations that Meyer did try to give for Beau’s lies.
Edythe is still a bit of a bully to Beau in the beginning, but this comes across as much less of a serious problem with the gender reversal, especially since Edythe is physically much smaller than Beau and so, even though she’s still much stronger, that visual, implied intimidation isn’t there. Also, Beau isn’t so simpering as Bella and it doesn’t seem to cause him the same emotional turmoil that it does her. I don’t know; it’s a subtle change, but I think it does make the “verbal abuse” aspects of their relationship less serious.
Some of the changes feel a bit forced. Or rather, the events that happen feel forced in order to make the story conform to Twilight while changing as little as possible. Like Beau getting mistaken for a cop and therefore the hoodlums wanted to kill him. Not nearly as easy to believe as Bella drawing the attention of street rapists because she was a girl walking down the street alone at night. It seems odd to me that an author had to work so much harder to find a reason that a teen boy would get into mortal danger when it’s so easy for a teen girl to—well, maybe not odd so much as a really sad commentary on human society.
And the names. The new names are, for the most part, pretty silly. I know that for the vampires she was probably putting a lot of importance on period-accurate names (and probably also name meaning), but I think it would have been better for her to make that a lesser concern than picking names that would more quickly and easily identify their Twilight counterparts. I was forever having to stop and think who was who. Even with the modern names, she missed a lot of the more obvious choices. Like, she turned Jessica into Jeremy instead of Jesse. She turned Angela into Aaron instead of, I don’t know, Angelo or something. Jasper is Jessamine instead of Jasmine. Mike is Mikayla instead of Michelle. Jacob is Julie instead of, like, Jackie. Rosalie is Royal instead of Ross. Alice is Archie instead of Albert or Alvin or Alfred. Emmett was Eleanor, not Emily or Emmeline. James is Joss instead of Jaime (which is especially weird since every time I’ve seen the name Joss, it’s been a guy’s name). Those are just some top-of-my-head suggestions of names that might have been more intuitive choices than what she picked. Lauren to Logan makes some sense—at least they start and end with the same letter. (Except then it’s kind of weird that Laurent became Lauren. Kinda makes me think it’d have been funny/fitting if Lauren had become Laurent.) Sam is still Sam, so that was good, and I think Paul was Paula, and Victoria is Victor. The Bella to Beau switch was obvious, and I get why she picked Beaufort, but I think she should have used Beauregard instead, because it’s as dorky and outdated as Beaufort but with whimsical sort of pretentiousness.
Also, this book still has the same major plot hole that Twilight did: when Joss (James) calls Beau and somehow arranges that whole trap without the vampires knowing. The major problem with this is that when the conversation starts, Beau is standing in the same room as Archie, and then he moves to only one room away. It’s been established that vampires have no trouble hearing the other end of a phone conversation. Archie should have heard every word of that whole conversation. Which makes the whole ambush plot point fall apart entirely.
I would have liked to see more of the Cullens (the ones other than Edythe). Since we don’t have the rest of the series to get to know them, there seems too little of them, compared to what I wanted. Aside from glimpses from afar, they don’t really come into the story until half-way through. Royal and Earnest seemed to especially get too little page time.
I really enjoyed a lot of the changes and added bits. And the gender-swapping provided several moments of terrific humor. The scene where Edythe tells Beau to get on her back for that piggy-back run through the forest? Hilarious. It was scenes like that where the gender-swap was the most fun.
The “Can we ever have sex?” discussion is expanded on, probably to cover some things that didn’t really come up as much until later books. It comes across quite naturally—that is, it’s totally not surprising that a human guy would ask this at this point, even a gentlemanly one—and it actually reads as much more equal than in Twilight. With Bella and Edward, he seemed to give her very little in the way of specifics, talking down to her a bit in the “man imparting worldly wisdom on innocent girl, but only in small doses so as not to make her faint” kind of way. With Beau and Edythe, their whole discussion sounds much more like something between equals. And he does ask in the most gentlemanly way he can, trying to avoid saying it and then telling her several times that the question was inappropriate for a first (second?) date and she doesn’t have to answer. (Although I’m not sure “are we biologically compatible” is really an inappropriate question this early in a relationship when it’s possible the answer is no. If I started dating a eunuch, I’d kinda want to know that up front. It’s only fair.)
When it got to the new ending, I absolutely loved it. I loved that it took us through step-by-step, really giving us a nice, long resolution and answering (or at least hinting at answers) a lot of the questions that come up for the future of the story. Like the wolves and what the Cullens’ plans are at least in the short term. I wouldn’t want the ending of Twilight to change (not that there aren’t things that came after that moment that I wouldn’t like changed), but as an alternate version, I just loved this. I thought this new ending was perfect. Except for how it totally wants me to see more of this story and the author apparently doesn’t intend to continue it.
BTW, I know it’s totally obvious what she was doing, but I really love these lines:
Edythe—“Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.”
And Beau, at the end, when they’re talking about the various possible futures they could have had if things had gone differently—“Okay, okay, you’re right. There’s no other version.”
Also, I liked how that whole thing that Edward wanted, where he just wanted to be with Bella as she grew old and died, which is also what Edythe wanted, and which is a source of much angst and bad dreams and general whininess from Bella, is responded to this way by Beau:
She looked startled when I laughed. It wasn’t a very robust laugh, but I was surprised that it felt good.
“That was a really, really horrible idea,” I told her. “Can you imagine? When people thought I was your dad? Your granddad? I’d probably get locked up.”
Which maybe just shows that Beau is a bit funnier, cooler, and easier-going than Bella, which probably explains why I like him so much more.
As much as I did love the new ending, it was really sad in one way. Poor Charlie was left thinking his son’s dead, and the last time he saw him did not go well. Knowing what we do from Breaking Dawn, one wishes that they could have brought him into it. Not actually told him the secrets, but just not made him think Beau was dead. It’s not so much that Charlie can keep a secret as that he knows when not to ask too many question (which is probably not the best quality in a town sheriff, but hey). But no. Renee at least has Phil, but poor Charlie’s all alone and probably berating himself for failing as a parent. That’s the tragedy of this version of the story.
Now I want to address something a little unpleasant. This book is getting a lot of hate from some corners, and it all seems to revolve around the same handful of reasons:
1. People who haven’t read the book and don’t intend to read the book object to its very existence. As these people are neither the intended audience of this book nor informed about what they’re talking about, these opinions can and should be utterly dismissed.
2. People who are upset that this book doesn’t have more gays, transsexuals, or such things/people/topics. These people need to understand that just because a book isn’t about what you want it to be about and doesn’t preach the topics you want preached does not mean that the book actually has anything wrong with it—especially when the author is Mormon (a pretty conservative/traditional religion) and all the books she’s written so far follow a pretty conservative/traditional view of things like sex and gender identity. The complainers who fit in this category should know by now that this author doesn’t write about homosexuality/transsexualty/etc. Complaining that this book isn’t some transsexual treaties is like saying, “This pumpkin isn’t chocolaty enough!” or whining that John Scalzi doesn’t write thoughtful, theologically-correct Christian romances. These opinions are idiotic and should also be dismissed.
3. People who think Meyer should stop rehashing the stories she’s already written and write something new. Since this book basically is a Twilight rewrite, this criticism is fair. I would point out that this is the first time she’s done something that had so little original material. (One could argue that The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is a rehash of part of Eclipse, but as it was almost entirely original material and was really an alternate POV that fleshed out the story rather than rehashed it, I would not agree with that argument.) I think part of the reason people feel this way isn’t her fault but the fault of the many authors (most especially E.L. James) who have rewritten her story in different ways ad nauseum in the decade since Twilight was published. These opinions are valid, but I would encourage these people to try to see what’s different about Life and Death rather than what’s the same, and maybe take a step back and think about how so much of this rehash fatigue isn’t really Meyer’s fault. Most of these people will still feel this way, I know, and that just means this book’s not for them. Fair enough.
4. People who are angry that Meyer wrote this instead of Midnight Sun (if she was going to return to the Twilight universe). I can totally understand this opinion. (As I explained above, I, too, am eagerly awaiting Midnight Sun and kind of think her reasons for not writing it yet are pretty pathetic.) I would remind these people that hating on an author’s latest book, when it’s an author who has enough money that she never needs to release another book in her life, is counter-productive. You want her to write Midnight Sun? Buy this book and let her know that people are still interested in reading Twilight stories. And be nice about it. She has no obligation whatsoever to give us Midnight Sun or The Host sequels or any other books, nor does she need the money. If we want her to keep writing books for us to read, we need to make being an author a fun, pleasant experience. The tidal wave of hate that came at her when this book was released was, I can only assume, not particularly fun or pleasant for her. Authors are not your puppets. They’re people. Buy their books or don’t. Go to signings and say nice things to them if you like them. Don’t yell at them or berate them. This will not make them write the book you want to read. It might make them stop writing altogether—or at least stop publishing.
As to the question of whether this book is less sexist than Twilight or somehow shows that Twilight isn’t as sexist as some people claim . . . honestly, I don’t know and don’t care. I don’t think either of them are particularly sexist. I think people who really think Twilight is very sexist are probably going to continue to hold that opinion regardless of anything the author does or writes. I think the majority of Twilight fans don’t really care. Though I did like seeing more females in more leadership roles, and more roles in general, in this version of the story. But that doesn’t mean I thought it was wrong before.
I listened to the audiobook, so I’d like to comment on the narrator, Michael Crouch. Not one I’d heard before, but I thought he did a fantastic job. His voice came across as just the right age for Beau, and I thought the tone that he read in as Beau was perfect. He did well with the other characters too. There could probably have been a bit more differentiation in the voices (and everyone still keeps forgetting that Carine/Carlisle is English and so still has somewhat of an accent, as clearly stated in Midnight Sun IIRC), but I still give him 5/5 for this narration.
Was this book perfect? No, of course not.
Was it better than Twilight? Personally, I think so.
Did I love it? You bet I did. (Even if it didn’t have Carlisle, my favorite character, but Earnest was an almost-acceptable substitute as vampire-I’d-want-to-marry.)
The big problem I have now is that I’m left desperate for more, and it looks like there won’t be any. I want to see this story continue, and I also really want to see what would happen if Life and Death characters met their Twilight counterparts. I guess that’s what fanfic’s for.