Monday, September 22, 2008

Regarding Breaking Dawn

If you want to read this book and have not, don't read any further.

Okay, so you've already read the book, or you're that sure you'll never have even a passing interest in it. Fair enough either way. My wife and I have both enjoyed every book that Stephanie Meyer has published so far, and Breaking Dawn was no exception. I tend not to read criticism of books I like (there is rarely any point, as it boils down to taste), but in this case the criticism was inescapable.

I started reading this book the day it came out, and finished it within a day or two, so it's been a few months since I've read it. I'm a bit late to the party with posting my thoughts on the novel, but I've been busy. Mainly I want to respond to some of the criticisms that have been made against this book:

1. The book is fan-service.

Well... this is true. Seems like kind of a fitting way to end a series to me. The protagonist gets what she wants, and everybody goes away happy. It doesn't make for a groundbreaking, emotional knife-twisting, but it sure made me happy. The Time Traveler's Wife was both wonderful and haunting, and it left me miserable and depressed for days afterward. Quite the opposite with Breaking Dawn. Personally, I think there is room for both kind of books -- those that reaffirm life, and those that speak to the inevitability of death. I'd really hate to imagine a world with just one or the other. I tend to trend toward the bittersweet or dark endings in my own writing, so this is in no way a defense of something I might do. But I'm not opposed to the idea that something I'd personally never do is still a valid thing to do.

2. Bella is too perfect, creating a vehicle for the author to fantasize through.

Well... I can see that, too. But this is hardly new. Superman and a lot of other comic book heroes come to mind as falling into a similar mold. It's satisfying to read something like this every once and a while, though it would have been boring if the whole series had been this way. It is indeed more interesting when the main characters have flaws, but Bella has been so flawed for the rest of the series that it's quite an interesting change to see her as the active, powerful one for a change (she has been so passive in many ways in the other books, so it's a notable shift). I can see why this would turn some people off, but I don't think it's right to make a sweeping dismissal of the work for this reason.

Oh, and the complaint that all the guys fall over her even though she thinks she is ordinary? Well, this really happens. Whether or not it happened to Stephanie Meyer is irrelevant, this is the story she was telling and it is not as fantastical as some people seem to think. The same thing happened to my wife a lot in high school before we got engaged (and after, a bit). Of course, I know the truth is that my wife is far from ordinary, even if she never seemed to believe it!

3. The birth scene.

Squeamish, are we? My wife and I plan to have kids in a few years, and this scene did not change our views on it one iota. It's an interesting bit of science fiction. I guess maybe this was unexpected for some in a YA book, but Stephanie Meyer has noted that she never set out to write YA with this series.

4. Overuse of adjectives and descriptors like "dazzling."

This is definitely a glitch in Stephanie Meyer's writing, but it's hardly something worth condemning her for. If she were not so popular, people wouldn't complain about this. For a relatively new author, she's extraordinarily polished and professional in her presentation and wording. People complained about "saidisms" and other extra adjectives in J.K. Rowling's books, too, but I also felt that those complaints were a bit on the nitpicky side.

5. The book is angsty.

Well, so are a lot of teenagers. So are a lot of people in love. I think that part of the reason this series works, and the reason it resonates with people so much, is the fact that it is truthful in its emotions and its story arcs. If you're jaded and don't remember what it was like to be young and in love (or missed that boat entirely), I guess it would seem a little overmuch. But again, this boils down to a taste thing. I wouldn't want every book to be like this, but I wouldn't want every book to be like any single work. This book does an excellent job of honestly telling the story it is trying to tell.

6. Characterization blunders.

(Jacob and Edward's shift in views throughout the book, the easygoing nature of Charlie and the mother when it comes to Bella's wedding, etc.) Some people have complained that these parts of the story seemed out of character with past novels, but I didn't feel that way. I was surprised at how easy Charlie and the mother took it on Bella, but it wasn't grossly out of character -- his laid-back attitude and the mother's flighty nature had been long established. Given that, it wasn't much of a stretch to have their reactions be comparably tame so that the story could move along.

As for the changes with Jacob and Edward, there was support for their changes in past books, too. Edward has long made it clear that he would do whatever is best for Bella even at the expense of his happiness (hence his offer for her to have "puppies"), and Jacob has also been fairly prey to Bella's whims. The "imprinting" thing was also long established, and provided an interesting and funny plot arc.

7. Build Up To Nothing

So they do all this preparing for a battle that doesn't happen, right? I disagree. The battle very much happened, but it was more about positioning and maneuvering and discussion than just brawn-on-brawn. Surely you don't think the Cold War wasn't a real war just because we didn't have tanks and planes and nuclear weapons firing left and right?

Yes, there was not a battle in the traditional sense (as there was in Harry Potter), but I think this was one of the strengths of this work. The physical/magical battles in Harry Potter were long established through the series and so to not have one at the end would have been a letdown to be sure. But in the Twilight series, physical violence has been far overshadowed by the threat of violence along with emotional and mental conflict. Stephanie Meyer delivered on all these fronts without taking the story in a cliche direction just for the sake of having a "big battle" at the end. I thought it was the right decision, and it tied together nicely with everything else she had written so far.

8. Bella doesn't lose anything. There are no sacrifices.
Yep, this is a pretty "happy ending" type of book. In some respects, it is almost one long epilogue to the rest of the series. As I said before, that's not the sort of book I'm likely to write (I trend darker than that), but it doesn't offend me in the least that Stephanie Meyer chose this path. I found it interesting, and enjoyable, and a wonderful way to say farewell to the characters. In fact, if she wrote another book that was an "epilogue to the epilogue," so to speak, I'd read that one, too.

There are room for all kinds of stories, and not all of them have to center around suffering and loss. Bella and Edward (and Jacob) certainly suffer plenty during this novel, and there is conflict everywhere even when an overarching plot is not evident, and I felt like that was more than enough to keep the story interesting and meaningful. The fact that the suffering is passing and that everything works out is perhaps part of the uplifting theme of this book -- some genuinely dark and scary stuff happens (the birth in particular), but at the end of it things are better and life goes on. Surely this is a message worth writing about at least in some books?

There were other complaints in addition to these, of course, but most of them were so clearly rooted in taste that they aren't really debatable. To me, the most important thing is that Stephanie Meyer's work was original and interesting -- she didn't fall back on formulaic tropes, and she didn't bore her audience with self-indulgent tangents and explanations. Almost everything fit, the pace was reasonable, and she left at least this fan with a pleasant memory of her series at the end of it all. You can argue the artistic merits all day long, but I think there's value to be had in doing just what Stephanie did.

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