Life and Death. Stephenie Meyer. Atom. October 2015.
Unless you’ve been living under some giant moss-covered boulder in the middle of a forest for the past hundred years, you’re likely already aware that, last month, Stephenie Meyer released a ‘re-imagined’ version of Twilight for its 10th anniversary. The re-imagining element is that the gender of every character within the book (with the exception of Charlie and Renee) has been reversed. Life and Death is not the story of Bella and Edward, but of Beau Swan and Edythe Cullen.
Love it or hate it, nobody can deny what a huge phenomenon The Twilight Saga escalated into, and how many readers it made of a generation. As a teenager, I am mildly embarrassed to admit I was a massive Twihard (but c’mon, who wasn’t?!), and these books really were my world for a good few years. I wouldn’t consider myself a fan now, but part of reading Life and Death for me was a nostalgia thing; I was curious to revisit the characters that took over my life, and made me obsessively read reams and reams of (some good, some very, very bad) fanfiction.
Before I move on to my thoughts on the book, I want to address the accusations of ‘laziness’ that have been flying around, because we can’t deny the fact that this book is virtually the same story as Twilight, give or take a couple of scenes, and the ending. What I would add, however, is that Stephenie has been pretty open about that from the word go, and if you’re going into this book expecting something different, I don’t think that’s her fault. You can be cynical about this, call it a money-spinner (and it is), but the fact is, people are willing to part with money to read Life and Death – and I don’t think that’s due to any deception on the part of the author or publisher, but simply because… people want to read it!
I know it’s never going to be comparable with Proust or anything, but the first thing I want to mention is that the writing in Life and Death is a considerable improvement on Twilight. I noticed this from the first chapter, because although the commentary is pretty much the same (I recognised so many lines as the original book is so familiar to me), Beau’s narrative is much smoother than Bella’s. Stephenie has mentioned in her introduction that rewriting this book gave her a chance to polish up some of the parts she was unhappy with, and I think that really shows. I remember a lot of Bella’s thoughts being quite jarringly written and dropped abruptly into sentences, which at times made her voice sound unnatural, but Beau’s voice sounded more authentic. It’s strange considering his thoughts about everything are the same as Bella’s, but he really did feel like a different character with his own distinctive voice. That voice also sounds more like a teenager than a mom, in a way that Twilight itself never managed – I could always hear so much of Stephenie’s voice in Bella, yet I think Beau sounds like a real person and not the author.
This book made me think a lot about some of the issues people had with the original book, mainly the criticism of gender-stereotypes in the novel (Bella as the damsel in distress who does all the cooking.) In this book, Beau also does all the cooking for Charlie, but because he’s a guy, the question of gender-stereotyping falls away – you can see that he does it because he likes cooking and Charlie’s useless at it. The thing is, Bella does all the cooking for the same reasons, yet people find this sexist because she’s female?
Similar things have been said about Bella’s clumsiness – oh, she’s a damsel in distress stereotype, she’s fragile, always needing to be saved by Edward, etc. etc. However, seeing that same trait in Beau, we just see that… he’s a clumsy and vulnerable human. The thing is, Bella’s a clumsy person too, and it has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a girl. Girls are allowed to be clumsy, and they’re allowed to not be clumsy… Making them one way or the other does not make a writer sexist. You know what I find more sexist? Criticising a female author for choosing to portray a female character in the way she wants to portray them. Sure, Stephenie could have made Bella smooth and strong, but it would have been hard to show such a difference between humans and vampires if she had. Showing these traits in Beau, a male character, has given Stephenie a chance to show how ridiculous these criticisms of Bella are. They have nothing to do with Twilight being sexist, and everything to do with our own sexist assumptions.
Whilst reading this book, I decided Beau and Edythe are more likeable characters than Bella and Edward, and I think it’s down to their humour. As I mentioned before, most of the dialogue is the same, but there was some new material, and most of it was banter between Beau and Edythe, which softened the characters up a bit. Beau is considerably less snarky and bitter than Bella, and Edythe is less rigid and formal than Edward. The other thing I found was that some of the lines which made Twilight a bit lame were re-worked here, so they sound much more natural. For example, instead of being unconditionally and irrevocably in love with Edythe, Beau says:
“There were a few things I knew for sure. For one Edythe was an actual vampire. For another, there was a part of her that saw me as food. But in the end, none of that mattered. All that mattered was that I loved her, more than I’d ever imagined it was possible to love anything. She was everything I wanted, the only thing I would ever want.”
Okay, so still pretty cheesy, but at least it sounds like something an actual person, rather than a Thesaurus, might say.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of problems with this book. The relationship between Beau and Edythe is still unhealthy and stalky (and I know a lot of people felt strongly about this aspect after reading the original book). It’s not that I don’t see the creepiness of this, because I do (in hindsight though… at the time, I thought it was very romantic), it’s just that I also think we underestimate the intelligence of readers by saying that books shouldn’t portray these things -that they have a responsibility not to. Crime books glamorize murder, yet the average reader of these books is not going to go out on a killing spree after reading them. In the same way, young girls (and at the time of reading Twilight, I was one, and an insecure, vulnerable one at that!) may get all fluttery reading these books, but it doesn’t mean that they will seek out that kind of relationship in real life. I certainly didn’t, and I was incredibly obsessed with Twilight back in the day.
I would recommend this book to anybody who had a huge Twilight crush as a teenager and is curious, or fancies a trip down memory lane. However, don’t go in expecting a completely different story. The differences are subtle (although they do make it a better book), and a lot of the content is very familiar.
Have you read Life and Death or Twilight? What did you think of it? I appreciate there are a lot of conflicting opinions on these books (and everyone has one!), so I’d love to hear your thoughts!