Into this Year of the Plague, like the half-forgotten relic of a simpler, lower-stakes culture war, has sparkled the most famous Spanish flu survivor in American popular culture: Twilight’s Edward Cullen is back.
That’s right. Thirteen years after it was first leaked to the internet, Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun, which retells the first volume of the Twilight saga from Edward’s point of view, is finally out in print. It’s been lightly revised from that leaked first draft, and when you hold it in your hands, it feels like 2009 is back all over again.
Is Midnight Sun a good book? Of course it’s not, it’s a Twilight book. It has all the same clunky, leaden sentences you remember from the first time Twilight came out in 2005, and the same bizarre pacing, where nothing really happens until maybe 50 pages from the ending. It has the same insistence that stalking and emotional abuse is romantic, the same casual racism toward Indigenous people, and every other fault that made the franchise a general pop culture punching bag when it was at the height of its cultural saturation 10 years ago.
It also remains the case, as many critics have by now argued, that the backlash against Twilight was much more vitriolic than the backlash against other trashy bestsellers of the era like Ready Player One that were marketed to boys rather than to girls. It’s by now pretty clear that the not-so-secret reason everyone had so much fun mocking Twilight online 10 years ago is that our culture loves to mock stuff made for teenage girls. Both of those things are true!
(I did wonder, as I picked up Midnight Sun, whether it would turn out that all my circa-2009 hatred for Twilight was purely internalized misogyny, and I would end up loving this franchise. But it turns out that no, even though Ready Player One is also terrible, Midnight Sun is really a very bad book.)
But the return of Twilight does give us a chance to dive into all of the things that made the franchise a phenomenon the first time around. Because even as the Twilight franchise was reviled, it was also massively successful. A microgeneration of teen girls imprinted on these books. And then they were taught that they should hate themselves for it, because smart girls weren’t supposed to like Twilight.
Twilight is, in many ways, a cultural relic. It was a growing pain, a late 2000s blip in our collective development away from the purity rings of the Bush era and toward the woke cosmopolitanism of the Obama era — a tiny span when many were obsessed with Mormon vampires who glitter in the sunlight. It’s pop culture at its most effervescent and disposable.
But something in this franchise spoke deeply to the hearts of thousands of girls. That something is valuable, and worth a closer look.
I can only find traces of it in Midnight Sun.
In Twilight, sex is impossible. That means every moment can be sexy.
Midnight Sun is longer than its predecessor. At 658 pages, it is a full 144 pages heavier than the original Twilight was. The plot moves slowly: The lovers don’t kiss until page 378, and the villain doesn’t arrive until page 500. And those extra 144 pages don’t offer much new material. While we occasionally see Edward with his family as Bella didn’t get a chance to, he barely has time to talk with them because he’s so obsessed with his busy schedule of Bella-stalking.
In fact, Edward stalks Bella so closely that the bulk of Midnight Sun is a scene-for-scene match for Twilight, this time with the bonus of Edward complaining that he doesn’t know exactly what’s going on in Bella’s mind at any given moment. When he has to rip himself away from her side — in order to hunt down that vampire who finally shows up to menace her on page 500 — Meyer’s boredom is palpable. She has absolutely no interest in writing about a vampire-on-vampire game of cat-and-mouse through the wilderness.
No, what Meyer is interested in, and where the bulk of those extra 144 pages seems to come from, is in gazing. She wants to show us Edward watching Bella in reverent, ecstatic detail, wants to show us how every ordinary thing Bella does overcomes him.
Bella doesn’t cover her face when walking in the rain? This shows that she does not wear makeup, meaning that she is admirably modest and un-self-obsessed, unlike other girls, and besides, she doesn’t need makeup because “the cosmetics industry made billions of dollars a year from women who were trying to attain skin like hers.” Bella’s wearing pajamas and her hair is wet from her shower? “The English language needed a word that meant something halfway between a goddess and a naiad.” When Bella shows up in a crew-neck top and a long khaki skirt, well, the poor guy nearly has an aneurysm.
But Edward’s longing for Bella is painfully chaste. It takes until page 230 for him to even consider kissing her, and then until page 378 to do the deed. Sex is out of the question, both because Edward’s superhuman strength could kill Bella and because Edward believes that true love waits, but face-touching features heavily. When Edward imagines “a thousand different ways to touch her,” each image in his mind has the hazy edges of a soft-focus romantic montage: “The tip of my finger tracing the shape of her lips. My palm cupping her chin.”
Yet there has always been a bizarre, sublimated eroticism in Twilight, a weird and masochistic yearning that is what made these books so compelling to their target audience. Sex and its accompanying dangers are no true threat with Edward Cullen, and yet with the bare fact of sex removed, the idea of sex is able to permeate everything — and so is the fear that comes with it. Every moment becomes painfully, dangerously chaste-hot.
Because what makes Bella extraordinary to Edward is that her blood smells so good to him. He knows that if he were to drink her blood and kill her, she’d be the best thing he ever tasted. But he must resist with all his might because of how deeply he loves her. What unbearable tension. What a power rush for the girl who can imagine herself in Bella’s place.
When Edward at last tastes Bella’s blood at the end of Midnight Sun — to save her life, because she has been infected with venom that will transform her into a vampire unless Edward sucks it out of her — it has all the release of a consummation.
The thing is, we already saw that scene once before. We saw it in Twilight, from Bella’s point of view. And it was sexier and more interesting there.
There’s a reason that the first time Stephenie Meyer told this story, she chose to tell it through Bella’s eyes and not Edward’s. Once you get inside Edward’s head, you’re stuck with a serious case of diminishing returns.
Midnight Sun is about Edward. But the actually interesting character in Twilight is Bella Swan.
Part of what makes Edward such a powerful fantasy figure in the original Twilight, a Byron in a sensible mid-range Volvo, is the way he seems to see something in Bella that even she can’t, something that allows him to center his whole immortal life on her. Bella thinks of herself as painfully ordinary, but surely there must be something special about her if Edward thinks so?
And it is this secret specialness that the reader can borrow for themselves, imagining that through the eyes of a worthy lover, they too might become impossibly special, so special that a vampire might fight against his very nature to keep from drinking their impossibly tempting blood. That’s a powerful fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing mysterious about thousands of teen girls wanting to live inside of that fantasy if they could.
But Midnight Sun takes us inside Edward’s head, so that we can see exactly what he thinks is so special about Bella. And it is … not very convincing.
What Edward likes about Bella, we learn, is that she sacrifices her own well-being for the happiness of other people, including the parents who she looks after as though they were her children. If Meyer wanted to avoid the “Twilight romanticizes emotional abuse” criticism, it probably would have been better for her to avoid giving Edward a motivation that sounded so much as though he targeted Bella because he thought she had a codependent personality and would be easy to bend to his will. But it’s also a disappointing motivation because Edward is completely wrong about what’s special about Bella.
What I’m about to say is reading heavily against the grain of Twilight. I don’t think it’s what Stephenie Meyer intends anyone to get out of these books, and it’s probably not what a lot of fans are interested in when they read them. But it’s there in the text if you want to look for it, and it’s the part of these books that I care about.
What is actually interesting about Bella Swan, and what I continue to find compelling about her even when she is filtered through Edward’s thoughts, is how ferociously and desperately that girl wants some power for herself. She sees a hot guy who can offer power to her — who can make her rich and hot and strong and young forever — and she says, Yes, please, and fuck whoever tries to stop me.
Edward likes to pretend that he hates being a vampire. But he clearly loves it, and he clearly gets off on his own sense of martyrdom at his dark fate. Bella sees right through him.
“I shouldn’t exist,” Edward says in Midnight Sun (brooding italics original), and Bella responds, “That’s like going to someone who’s just won the lottery, taking their money, and saying, ‘Look, let’s just go back to how things should be. It’s better that way.”
Bella doesn’t care about her friends or family. She does not like sacrificing her life for them, and she wants to stop doing that. What Bella cares about is boning her crush and getting superpowers and money and endless hotness. She wants these things so badly that she manages to get poor slow-on-the-uptake Edward Cullen to deliver them to her, while convincing him it’s all his fault and she never had an impure thought in her life.
That’s what’s fun about Twilight, and that’s what makes the series feel like such a power rush for the reader despite Edward’s continued abuse of his power over Bella. Sure, he takes away her ability to consent over and over again — and Midnight Sun confirms that’s intentional on his part — and sure, he stalks her and threatens her and brings oil along with him when he breaks into her bedroom at night so he can grease the squeaky window and make sure he doesn’t wake her up as he sits there and heavy-breathes over her.
But Bella’s playing the long game here. She’s after power no one can take away from her, not even Edward. And she gets it in the end, because she’s a fucking artist.
That’s the Twilight I’m interested in. And it’s such a shame that Midnight Sun, in focusing so exclusively on Edward, offers so little of it.