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Life and Death: It’s No Twilight

The tenth anniversary edition of Twilight arrived on the shelves several months ago containing the bonus feature of Life and Death, a gender swap retelling of Twilight.

The tales are identical aside from the gender swap and an expedited ending.  It’s odd to have such divergent feelings after reading essentially the same book but those are the feelings I had after finishing them.  The story works when it is Edward and Bella and falls apart somehow when it is Edythe and Beau. Amazon reviews show the same response from many other readers.

For those who don’t know the basic story line, here it is: Bella/Beau Swan moves from Phoenix, AZ where he/she lives with her/his mom (Renee) to Forks, WA to live with her/his dad (Charlie). The move is not necessary but a charitable act done by Bella/Beau so that Renee can follow her husband, a minor league baseball player, when he’s on the road.

Bella/Beau’s introduction to Forks High school is where we get the first inkling of how significant the move is. Bella/Beau is instantly popular. The opposite sex all want to date them, people of the same sex all want to be their best friend. The main reason this is significant is that that was not Bella/Beau’s life in Phoenix. In fact, she/he seems to have no connection to Phoenix or her/his previous life outside of her/his mom.  This is a common writing trick in science fiction/fantasy novels to let us know the character has arrived at where they are destined to be. I thought it worked well here.

Bella/Beau’s love fest with the student body only lasts till science class where her/his lab partner, Edward/Edythe treats her/him like a person with a bad odor or communicative disease or possibly both. The lab partner disappears for a few days, then when Edward/Edythe does return to school they play a cat and mouse game of friendly/unfriendly with Bella/Beau. One fine morning Edward/Edythe saves Bella/Beau from what was certain to be a fatal accident. Bella/Beau is convinced this was done using super human speed and strength, which sets them on a quest which leads to them learning their love interest is a vampire.

The first time I read Twilight I knew nothing about it. It was sitting on a table with several other YA fantasy/paranormal/science fiction books and I picked it up because I was intrigued by the cover and back blurb. Since the store was having a buy four get one free sale I grabbed it as my free book. I don’t have the other four books anymore but I have multiple versions of this one.

There are several reasons why that is. The first is I love a good Beauty and the Beast story when it involves an actual beast and not some poor misunderstood beta hero. Edward is a beast; he’s a mass murderer who on more than one occasion has seriously considered killing Bella.

Until the end of this book this desire is very much a concern for him and his family. They know how frail Bella is, how difficult Edward’s desire to hurt her is to resist and how a simple mistake can result in a split-second action that there will be no turning back from. Edward literally has to fight his instincts in order to keep Bella alive.

This is a feat much harder than it sounds. Destiny has a sort of storm spinning around Bella with several forks in the road of her possible future.  The first and most prominent fork is death. As she says to Edward, “Did you ever think that maybe my number was up the first time, with the van, and that you’ve been interfering with fate?” He tells her that she actually came close to dying that first day in science class. Her blood smelled abnormally intoxicating to him and he’d wanted to kill her in those first moments as she crossed the room.  So–she has a top tier predator fixated on her but beyond that Bella has at least three other brushes with death in her first few months at Forks. She is almost run over by a van.  She takes a trip to a nearby town and is accosted by a dangerous group of young men. She makes several dangerous supernatural enemies. Edward not only has to keep himself from killing Bella, he has to keep fate from doing so as well.

Bella’s near death experiences underline that a big change has to occur for her to remain among the living. We already know that like Edward, she is unnaturally pale. We also know that she is unnaturally clumsy, as though she is not at home in her current body. That’s another trick I am very familiar with from sf/fantasy/paranormal reading and was basically handwriting on the wall saying “She’s meant to be a vampire!” I like stories of destiny so this was a plot element that (since it was done right) worked very well for me.

Another thing I liked about Bella was her ordinariness. Science fiction/fantasy/paranormal books tend to be about the making of a hero. Typically, they start with someone ordinary and build them into someone extraordinary. In Twilight Bella sees herself as ordinary. Since the book is in first person it would be easy to accept that as simple fact. But Bella is above average in the best ways. She’s an excellent student–we know how much she loves to read and she was in advanced classes in Phoenix. She mentions this very briefly and in a way that would be easy to overlook but it’s a piece of her that is true. Bella also has a very helpful nature. She moves for her mom’s benefit, she is a caregiver to her mother and becomes one for Charlie. Much of her interaction with her friends involves helping pick prom dresses and putting away the rejects or playing matchmaker for them so no one feels left out or hurt. Ultimately she literally offers to die for someone. I love heroines like Kate Daniels or Mercy Thompson, both of whom are very kick ass, but I also admire quiet courage. Bella does the latter very well.

I also like the specific type of love story this is–a pairing of alpha male and beta female. Many call this an unequal partnership and in some ways that is true. Edward is like the bionic man–better, stronger, faster. The vampires in Twilight are super smart as well as gifted with super natural abilities, so Edward outshines Bella in those areas as well.  But I don’t think equality should be viewed as matching apples to apples. I like an apple/orange pairing and that is what Twilight offers. Bella isn’t just a foil for Edward, she helps him (and his family) expand their lives. The Cullens very much want to live like humans. Bella provides that; they join her friends at the lunch table, there’s the graduation party, there’s unity with the super natural community in the form of the Quileute alliance. They had friends before but she adds a richness to their emotional lives which was previously missing.

So why do I love Twilight but not Life and Death

Beau’s life mirrors Bella’s in several ways but somehow I received less of a sense of urgency or destiny from the exact same experiences happening to him.  Maybe because the author quoted paragraph upon paragraph verbatim and exchanged only the names so she lost the element of surprise.

But I don’t think that’s it. Where Edward presented a real threat to Bella, I just didn’t get a killer vibe off Edythe. She seemed like a genuinely nice vampire whose primary desire was to not hurt Beau (or anyone else.) I didn’t get a sense she was so desperate for his blood she’d kill for it. I did get that feeling from Edward. And where Edward’s stalkery tendencies reminded me of a predator tracking their prey, Edythe’s came across like a mom’s watching over a particularly accident prone child. In my head I could hear her telling the other vampires something like, “Everyone else can go to the playground and be fine. My kid manages to fall off the monkey bars or the swings or the slide. You just can’t leave him for a minute.” Edward’s desire for Bella’s blood, the potential harm he presented to her physical being, was a large part of what gave Twilight its sense of destiny. In Life and Death, the lack of a sense of eminent danger makes the relationship feel a bit lame. It also kills the romance in that I thought of Edythe more as a mom than a lover.

One of the reasons Ms. Meyer gave for writing Life and Death was she felt Bella got a bad rap as being a weak character, specifically being a weak female. She wanted to show that Bella being a boy wouldn’t have made any difference to the story; Edward didn’t rescue Bella because he was a big, strong male but because he was an incredibly strong vampire. Having Beau rescued by Edythe may have accomplished that for some readers but it didn’t work all that well for me. For starters, I never doubted that it was Edward’s vampirism that enabled him to rescue Bella. Had Mike or a pre-wolf Jacob been standing beside her when the van came flying at her they wouldn’t have been able to stop it. Edward’s inhumanity is pivotal to the tale and to his ability to be a rescuer for Bella. But I think Meyer’s may have made a mistake in making Beau as physically unintimidating as Bella. I believe her point would have been better served by a strong, athletic, agile Beau who still couldn’t accomplish what a vampire could. With Beau being as clumsy and inept as Bella, it seemed the character, regardless of name and gender was weak. In other words, not that the character was weak because they were human but weak because they were Bella/Beau.

The writing in the two books was different in a subtle way as well. This scene shows a bit of what I mean. Here it is from Life and Death:

JEREMY DROVE FASTER THAN THE CHIEF, SO WE MADE IT TO PORT ANGELES by four. He took us to the florist first, where the glossy woman behind the counter quickly upsold Allen from roses to orchids. Allen made decisions fast, but it took Jeremy a lot longer to figure out what he wanted. The saleswoman made it sound like all the details would be really important to the girls, but I had a hard time believing anyone could care that much.

Here it is from Twilight:

JESS DROVE FASTER THAN THE CHIEF, SO WE MADE IT TO PORT ANGELES by four. It had been a while since I’d had a girls’ night out, and the estrogen rush was invigorating. We listened to whiny rock songs while Jessica jabbered on about the boys we hung out with. Jessica’s dinner with Mike had gone very well, and she was hoping that by Saturday night they would have progressed to the first-kiss stage. I smiled to myself, pleased. Angela was passively happy to be going to the dance, but not really interested in Eric. Jess tried to get her to confess who her type was, but I interrupted with a question about dresses after a bit, to spare her. Angela threw a grateful glance my way.

In the Twilight scene we see Bella’s enjoyment of girl’s night, the type of music they listen to on the drive, what they talk about and how she views Angela and Jess. In Life and Death that little bit of character building is missing. That happens in many other scenes. The end result is that we never really know Beau. The lack of destiny combined with my lack of knowledge of the character equaled me not really caring about his fate.

It’s rare that we get to see so clearly how the minutiae of storytelling–the character building, writing style, mood setting–affect our response to the tale. Many times when we say we liked or disliked something we offer up generalities like “It’s got really good world building” or  “The character lacked all agency”. In this case the character and world building were almost exactly the same. Yet the subtle changes made a substantial difference to my enjoyment of the book. 

There’s a final element that I think makes Twilight better than Life and Death and that’s the appeal of the bad boy.  Psychology Today writes, “From a Darwinian point of view, females are the choosier sex, and males compete for their attention. The result of this competition is that men have evolved strategies such as seeking alpha status.” Edward is an alpha male and, in my reading life, I like alpha males. They make a nice contrast to the lovely beta I have at home. Edward is a bad boy and (according to that same article in Psychology Today),good women are indeed drawn to bad boys despite their emotional and sometimes physical unavailability.” Beau is not a bad boy – he brings out the mothering aspect in women, not the amorous one.

We’ve talked about it before but chances are that what makes many of the bestselling books bestsellers is the heroes’ ability to walk the line between complete jerk and alpha dreamboat.  According to Psychology Today,A clue to female psychology emerges in a study examining the cheesy best sellers that set millions of women on a Harlequin high. The male protagonists are invariably studs on steeds who morph into devoted dads by novel’s end. That is, the women get the best of both worlds.” If we ignore the nasty–and unneeded–slur of cheesy, this statement makes an interesting point; most romances novels do give us the best of both worlds–the bad boy hero at the start, the loving, gracious committed man at the end. In Twilight, when Bella becomes a vampire in the final book, Edward is no longer a threat to her. He goes from being a fanged (metaphorically) menace to being a dad, husband and protector.

To sum up, I liked Twilight for its alpha, bad boy hero; sci-fi fantasy elements of the hero’s journey and destiny; better writing/characterization.  I disliked Life and Death for (among other reasons) its weak hero, mommy heroine and the fact that it lacked any sense of danger or destiny.

AAR’s Maggie

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