Avid fans of the chase vampire franchise Twilight were more excited about the sex scene in the final book than they have ever been about Christmas. So imagine their impatience at having to wait for the next book in the series ever since an early draft was leaked in 2008. Midnight Sun is the fourth book, the story of how Bella Swan and the vampire Edward Cullen fell in love as retold from his perspective. Author Stephenie Meyer once said she would never finish it, but now it’s finally here and she has dedicated the foreword to all those “young teenagers with bright, beautiful eyes full of dreams for the future” who, 12 years on, aren’t so teenage anymore.
Those were the “Twilighters” and “Twihards” who loved the mystical world of werewolves, bloodlust and enforced sexual abstinence that Meyer created. And yet for those now returning to it as adults, you might find yourself struggling with two aspects of this fanged love story. There’s the laughably bad writing, of course – “her scent hit me like a battering ram, like an exploding grenade” or, worse, “her heart throbbed wetly” – but also the questionable romanticisation of a man dating a teenager who a) he wants to eat and b) he is five times older than (not that anyone can tell, because vampires don’t wrinkle).
Granted, when the original Twilight was released over 15 years ago, the power imbalances between Bella and Edward were not lost on its audience. Her, a delicate schoolgirl who is too shy to maintain eye contact. Him, an immortal babe who can run at 100mph and sparkles in sunlight. Sci-fi website io9 noted that Bella and Edward’s relationship meets all 15 criteria set by the National Domestic Violence Hotline defining an abusive relationship. L Lee Butler of the Young Adult Library Services Association said he was uncharacteristically hesitant to let libraries stock Twilight because he felt the books were “robbing [teen girls] of agency and normalizing stalking and abusive behaviour”. With Midnight Sun, the framing of Bella and Edward’s love story becomes even more unpalatable now that it’s narrated by his desires.
Edward routinely luxuriates in how “frail” and “bewildered” Bella is. “Vulnerable, weak. Even more than usual for a human,” he says, leering at her as she trips over a chair. And while in the original Twilight, Bella learns that Edward watches her while she sleeps, Midnight Sun readers get a first-person account of that spying with unsettling detail, including how he greases up her window hinge so he can climb through it and sit in her rocking chair without waking her. At one point, Edward watches Bella from the outside while she reads a Jane Austen novel – but justifies his behaviour because he’s in the neighbour’s tree. “I wasn’t technically even trespassing now,” he reasons. “But I knew that when night came, I would continue to do wrong.”
At one point in the story, Bella tries to walk away from Edward and in response, he catches the back of her rain jacket, jerks her to a stop, asks her “where do you think you’re going?” and then becomes angry at her noncommittal response: “‘I’m going home,’ she said, clearly baffled as to why this should upset me.” Meyer writes as though it’s completely normal, or even a sign of dedication, that a man’s ego should be bruised by a woman expressing her own agency. Edward doesn’t have to be a role model – if he’s a vampire, by definition he’s also a murderer – but it would be better if his behaviour didn’t blur into the sort that often ends up with women not able to leave their house or call their friends.
Throughout Midnight Sun, Meyer plods through various descriptions of Bella’s appetising appearance (“her cheeks were once more coloured bright pink with blood”), the hunger inside Edward that Bella awakes (“it was intensely painful, like swallowing burning coals”), what it would feel like to eat her (“sinking my teeth through that fine, thin, see-through skin to the hot, wet, pulsing–”). While boring for some, this forensic attention to each character’s emotional minutia is what made so many readers fall in love with Twilight the first time. Instead of the impassioned political injustice of The Hunger Games or the death-defying action scenes of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books, Meyer’s YA series teases you by telling you just how much the characters want to do certain things – mostly sex and murder – while never actually letting them do it. So, their denial of ordinarily horny impulses becomes erotic in itself.
The laboured detail is such that, over 262 pages into Midnight Sun, Bella isn’t even aware Edward fancies her yet. By page 326, Edward thinks about how he wants to touch her face but then decides he better not. Reading through the book, I began to rediscover the teenager in me who used to spend hours dreaming of someone else’s hand drawing shapes on my back. The chaste duo nearly kiss but then Edward uses an “eighth of a second to recalibrate’’ whether this is a good idea. “I put my hands lightly on either side of her face,” he explains, “leaving plenty of room to move away if this was unwelcome.” When they eventually do make out, it seems practically catastrophically sexual because all the reader has received thus far has been reams of increasingly bizarre metaphors to describe how hungry Edward feels when sniffing Bella’s hair.
Some readers might be disappointed by how much overlap there is with the first book – think of it like watching the Lion King live-action remake of Disney’s original cartoon – but diehard fans will get excited about many previously unknown details. Alice and Edward’s brother-sister relationship is unpacked to the sweet, nurturing nitty-gritty, particularly how her power of foresight helps him read his future with Bella. With more insight into Edward’s mind-reading powers, you learn to like and dislike certain characters in equal measure, too – Bella’s school friend, Jessica, comes off as particularly annoying. You also get a sense of the anxiety Edward feels as he tries to assimilate into the world as a supernatural creature.
But, unfortunately, what you learn most about Edward is his pathologically dedicated invasion of Bella’s mind and body, dictating where she should go and demanding she say how she feels when she does. So obsessed is he with old-fashioned gender roles that he doesn’t even swear in front of women. “A word I’d never said before in the presence of a lady slid between my clenched teeth,” says Edward before flying through the air to save his frail prize from an oncoming car. Midnight Sun is a frustrating reminder of how much of popular culture focuses on a helpless woman being saved by a troubled, yet ultimately forgivable man. In the Twilight universe, vampires don’t burn under the sun, they gleam like diamonds. I wish they did set alight, though: that way I might not have to hear Edward’s inner monologue as his lips rest on Bella’s neck ever again.