MIDWAY: Twilight saga for teens

Fantasy fiction fever reigns once more, and this time it has fangs. Last weekend bookshops across the US threw parties to launch Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in Stephenie Meyer’s blockbusting Twilight saga. The series follows Bella, a gothic high school student, and her obsession with a hot young vampire, Edward Cullen.

At first glance it’s easy to see why Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, the first three volumes in Meyer’s series, are so popular with girls. In tracing Bella’s fascination with Edward they affirm the existence of the female gaze, the desiring eye that notices male beauty with appreciative pleasure. The story has a plot relating to Edward’s vulnerability to various ill-wishers, but its real engine is Bella’s admiration of him. The saga, written in the first person, has an infatuated intensity. But the dynamics of the central relationship are old-fashioned.

It’s baffling that in an age of relative sexual emancipation, Meyer’s reactionary set-up strikes a chord. Desire is everywhere, but there’s no sex, and characters conform to Mills and Boon-style romantic fiction gender roles. The story becomes a frozen love triangle as Bella is also desired by Jacob, a friend who happens to be a werewolf.

All three characters, two active males and one dopey female, are suspended in an agony of lustful abstinence. It is the crude device of unresolved sexual tension, which twangs through all the books, that makes them compulsive. The success of the Twilight series is puzzling because it’s the most conservative example of an established young adult fantasy milieu of vampire subcultures and teen wolves. However, what distinguishes other authors of the genre from Meyer is the active, witty assertiveness of their young heroines, their freedom from feminine torpor.

Just like her vampire idol, Meyer remains an enigma. She is an imaginative storyteller, a prolific author and a newly powerful figure in the publishing market. She is able to successfully cross genres and audiences, as her recent and excellent adult science fiction novel, The Host, has proved. But her kudos among young female readers has been achieved through a series that drapes Dracula’s cape around Barbara Cartland’s shoulders.