Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella (Twilight Saga)
Warning: Book reviews contain some (mild) spoilers.

It seems appropriate that my first review on this blog is about a Twilight book. The Twilight series was my introduction to the world of Young Adult (YA) literature. (Unfortunately, I missed the whole Harry Potter phenomenon by a few years… It was most popular while I was in high school, when the only books I had time to read were school-related.)

How and why I started reading Twilight is a subject for another post, but suffice to say I’ve read all the books. And yes, I enjoyed them. The pros and cons of the series have been discussed to death on the Internet and elsewhere, so I won’t get into that here. I will say that I believe Stephenie Meyer’s strength as a writer lies in her ability to tell a page-turning story, as well as her gift for creating characters that inspire universal devotion from her fans. (And if you don’t know what I mean by “universal devotion,” I will be forced to wonder if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years.)

So while I don’t consider myself a rabid Twilight fan, I was intrigued when I heard about the release of an Eclipse novella. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is about a character that has literally ten pages of “screen-time” in Eclipse, the third book in the Twilight series. Everyone who read that book already knows what happens to Bree. (Hint: There’s a reason the title includes the word “short.”) I was curious to see what Stephenie Meyer would do with a character that not only seemed so minor, but so different from the main characters of Twilight. After all, Bree is a vampire in the more traditional sense—she’s a killer, and her ending is an unhappy one.

In my opinion, you do need to read Eclipse to understand this novella. At the very least, it will enrich your reading experience, especially in the last fourth of the book, when Bree’s experiences and those of the Cullens begin to intersect. If you only read the novella, you won’t understand some of the things Bree sees and hears (particularly Jacob’s injury). Additionally, I felt that a considerable part of the enjoyment of the book was being able to see familiar characters through a stranger’s eyes.

That said, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is a compelling story in its own right. Stephenie Meyer has a gift for imagining life from each of her characters’ point of view, even the most minor characters like Bree. And as always, she manages to create intriguing characters in unexpected settings. Bree’s interactions with her fellow newborns, Diego and Fred, surprised me with their simple charm. Compared to the other Twilight books, this is an understated, subtle little story… In my opinion, Stephenie Meyer’s writing style has matured well. The romance (and yes, of course there is romance) is so subtle that if it weren’t for a brief kiss or two, you could blink and miss it.

But at the same time, the themes of the Twilight series are brilliantly underscored in this book. It wasn’t until I was three-fourths of the way through that I realized that Bree had become a kind of counterpart for Bella. Of course, she already fulfilled this symbolic role in Eclipse. (She is the first newborn Bella sees, after Bella has decided to become a vampire… She becomes a symbol of Bella’s future in that moment.). But more than that, Bree’s character in the novella is similar to Bella in several ways—she likes to read, she’s quiet and withdrawn, and she becomes part of the supernatural world of vampires.

But her story is the tragic version of Bella’s journey: a victim of abuse in both her lives, Bree kills human beings because she is unaware of any other option. When she meets the Cullens, it becomes clear that she could have been one of them: she is willing to try to control her thirst for blood, until the Volturi deprive her of the right to choose. Ultimately, she dies because of her ignorance of the supernatural world around her, an ignorance that emphasizes the complex politics of the fictional world Stephenie Meyer created.

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner will probably not appeal to anyone who hates the Twilight series, because it’s really just another part of that series. And yes, the vampires still sparkle. (I thought it was interesting that this was a key plot point; Victoria and Riley lie about the sun’s effects on vampires for a crucial reason. In fact, the newborns’ “fear of the sun” becomes a rather brilliant metaphor for their lifestyle. And Lord knows I love me some metaphors.)

However, this novella is a powerful reminder that vampires in the world of Twilight are still vampires, especially when it comes to feeding on blood. Just because the Cullens fight their killer instincts doesn’t mean other vampires do the same. Bree and her fellow newborns rack up quite a body count, including one memorable scene involving a ferry full of passengers, and another where a woman is torn in half. So at the very least, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is proof that Stephenie Meyer knows how to write about monsters. The monsters in Bree’s life are bloodthirsty, cynical, and mostly unrepentant… Which makes the choices of the Cullens all the more intriguing in contrast, particularly for observant readers who have kept up with the series as a whole.

Quick Review

Pros: A new perspective on the Twilight series, two likeable new characters, several memorable scenes and details, brief appearances by well-loved characters from the series

Cons: Story lacks meaningful context without having read Eclipse, hard to avoid feeling detached toward Bree if you know her fate in advance, plot is limited in scope (though it exceeded my expectations in that regard)

Neutral: Understated romance, non-traditional vampire lore, some pretty grim violence

(Remember: “Neutral” means that I felt it could be a pro OR a con. Usually, I tend to think of neutral points as good things, but I can understand why many readers wouldn’t, which is why I label them “neutral.” All points of the Quick Review are just my opinion, however.)

The Final Word: A quick read with a new perspective, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is par for the course for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and a reminder of what this best-selling author-turned-phenomenon does well.

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