Don't stare straight into the Midnight Sun: Reviewing the latest Twilight novel
The companion novel to 2005's Twilight feels as endless as Edward Cullen's eternal existence.
A decade and a half ago, a phenomenon was born. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, a YA novel about a clumsy girl and her undead boyfriend, hit shelves in 2005 (and the big screen in 2008) and changed the landscape, bringing on a new wave of supernatural romance, ushering in the era of global digital fandom, and inspiring a lot of racy fan fiction (some of which you might have heard of).
Now, 12 years after the publication of series closer Breaking Dawn, Meyer has released the long-awaited Midnight Sun, which she first teased in 2008 but then shelved, much to fans’ dismay, in 2011 after early chapters leaked. The fifth novel in the saga, Midnight Sun is a retelling of 2005’s Twilight from the perspective of Edward Cullen, the dreamy, broody, sparkly-in-the-sunlight vampire and object of human teenager Bella Swan’s undying affection. The new novel hits the familiar beats — falling in love at school, glittering in a sunny meadow, introducing her to the family, rescuing her from an evil vampire, tricking her into going to the prom — and is billed not as a sequel but a Twilight companion novel. It is also the worst book of the series, which isn’t exactly Shakespeare to begin with.
Like so many things beloved by teenage girls, Twilight has always had its haters, so just to be clear: I started reading Midnight Sun genuinely hoping to enjoy it, at the very least as a pleasant throwback to a world I once knew. I did not dive into this book having already made up my mind that it would feel like an endless waking nightmare of a novel. I had no wish to besmirch fond memories of my teenage years, nor to fall asleep sitting up at least three times. Midnight Sun, however, left me with no choice.
Meyer’s prose has never been her strong suit; it continues not to be. Here is one typically revolting passage from the book (which, lest we forget, is titled Midnight Sun): “My life was an unending, unchanging midnight. It must, by necessity, always be midnight for me. So how was it possible that the sun was rising now, in the middle of my midnight?” How indeed!
No, the actual writing is not what originally propelled Twilight to its earth-shattering success; the strength of the first novel (before the sequels dragged out the romance into fairly transparent True Love Waits propaganda, with some magical-creature fights thrown in) was its appealing central conceit, transposing the intertwined danger and desire of the vampire myth onto a teen love story maxed out with sexual tension. It only worked, however, when it came from the perspective of the actual teenage girl — you know, the person navigating the adolescent angst that rendered it compelling in the first place.
Bella is not an interesting character, but she comes from something of an authentic place. Edward should be the opposite, having a less accessible perspective but at least a fascinating one — and yet! Even having lived a century with unlimited time, extensive resources, and the actual ability to read minds, his narration is neither more erudite nor more insightful than Bella’s; Meyer repeatedly tries to tell us that Edward is these things, but when the novel is in his voice, the failure to actually show it is all the more conspicuous.
Meyer also seems to attempt to correct some of the criticisms about Bella’s shocking lack of personality with Edward's constant marveling at how extraordinary she is and what a complex "puzzle" she is, and not only because he can’t read her mind. It’s never very convincing, and it stands in ugly contrast to his impression of all of their classmates, whose inner monologues are available to him and are all cynically portrayed as selfish and one-dimensional (except for Angela, whose inner monologue is very pointedly kind and one-dimensional). It did make me wonder: why would he ever lament his own cursed state and wish for the allegedly dazzling Bella to live a mortal life when he has such disdain for almost all the humans he ever encounters? But then I realized, if I were completely devoid of empathy and curiosity, I’d probably come to resent an eternal existence, too.
The degree to which Edward mentally tortures himself for potentially endangering his beloved is nothing compared to the punishment he inflicts on a reader. It’s hard to take his perpetual anguish over their future very seriously when we know (this is a companion novel, not for first-Twimers, after all) exactly what ending this story will come to. It is staggeringly boring to read him go through the same spiral of desire/shame/self-doubt/weak resolve every single time he and Bella so much as make eye contact across the parking lot. He’s convinced that he’s the worst thing that could ever happen to her, and after spending this much time in his brain, it’s impossible not to agree with him. Who knew a love story could be so joyless?
The novel’s high point is Edward’s family; they’re the only positive characters in the book, for one thing, and it’s always a relief to get a break from Edward’s insufferable accounts of alone time with Bella. The details about the Cullens’ lifestyle and personal histories are the best new insight into this world that Midnight Sun has to offer, and a reminder of the sparkle (for lack of a better word) the story held when it first was told through Bella’s incredulous eyes.
Outside of Emmett’s reliable enthusiasm and Alice’s choose-your-own-adventure visions, however, the more Midnight Sun tries explain, the more the charm of Twilight is diminished. For one thing, absolutely nobody benefits from Edward’s commentary on — or in fact any reminder of — his habit of secretly watching Bella while she sleeps. His desperation to keep her safe and his fetishistic obsession with her fragility are even ickier than they ever were in the first four novels (which is saying something):
“For all I knew, right at this very moment she could have wandered into the path of another death sentence. What would it be this time? A meteorite smashing through her roof and crushing her in bed?” he wonders. After further consideration of this and all other possible threats to her locked home in her small town, “Abruptly, the risk felt unacceptable. The only way I could be positive she was safe was if there was someone in place to catch the meteorite before it could touch her.”
Just in case we aren’t as astute as the Bella, Edward goes onto explain (to his own consciousness, I guess) that “obviously the meteorite was just a metaphor for all the unlikely things that could go wrong.” Midnight Sun is a meteorite if I’ve ever seen one, but that doesn’t really matter to Forks’ most faithful, whose devotion to this franchise rivals Edward’s to his oblivious sleeping beauty. The book sold over a million copies in its first week, and I sincerely commend all Twihards who made it through what felt to me like an interminable 600+ pages. For those who have yet to crack the spine, though, a warning: Read Midnight Sun at your own risk. It just might suck the life out of you. D–
Midnight Sun is available now.