Book Review: The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, by Stephenie Meyer

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, by Stephenie MeyerIt’s easy to hate on Stephenie Meyer. The Twilight books and movies, with their breathless teen romance, sparkly vampires, and beefcake werewolves, became in their heyday a symbol of everything wrong with American popular culture. Lowbrow, pandering, and riddled with literary don’ts, they were ridiculed by the punditry as creepy anti-feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy for sexually-repressed social outcasts and Mormon soccer moms. Instead of cooing over Judy Blume and Margaret Atwood while primly sipping fair-trade cappuchino, people glommed onto this…this…there are no words for this.

Worst of all, the Twilight phenomenon made an obscene amount of money, which would have been okay with the chattering classes, but the stories just weren’t that good. They didn’t deserve success on that scale, and the fans were loud and uncultured, to boot. It wasn’t fair.

Not that fairness matters in the world of publishing, something I discussed here a couple of posts ago. For whatever reason, Ms. Meyer’s stories struck an emotional chord with a lot of people, and they went to the bookstores and theaters in droves. She did something right.

Speaking of not fair, Bree Tanner’s life is so not fair. She’s starving in the back-alleys of Seattle—a teenage runaway fleeing an abusive parent, contemplating how to sell her body for lunch money. Just as she hits rock-bottom, a friendly young man happens by and offers to buy her a cheeseburger.

Unfortunately for Bree, the charming philanthropist is a vampire, and in short order, Bree is made a vampire herself and sucked into a little community of vampirized teens who spend their days locked in a basement playing video games and tearing off each other’s limbs, their nights devoted to de-sanguinating hapless Seattle-ites who stay out too late in the wrong part of town.

Superhuman strength and regenerative power don’t quite compensate for muddled memory and a constant, searing thirst for blood. The tearing-off of limbs is also a major buzz-kill. Unlike most of her cohort, Bree clings to the tenuous shreds of humanity remaining to her, though she doesn’t know why it seems important.

Then, she finds an ally, and a friend, and Bree dares to hope there might be a way out of this un-living hell that’s claimed her.

If you’re one of the three people who haven’t read, watched, or heard about the gist of the Twilight saga, leave now, or prepare to be spoiled.

If you’ve read the books or watched the movies, you already know precisely how Bree’s odyssey among the undead will end. Bree shows up without fanfare in the aftermath of the climactic battle in Twilight: Eclipse, and is summarily dispatched, offstage, after about five minutes in the spotlight (about 2.5 minutes in the movie). She’s a redshirt, a throwaway character, a tool to showcase the icy brutality of the Volturi über-vampires who stand in the way of Bella and Edward’s dream of glittering eternal bliss.

It’s odd—in those five minutes, Stephenie Meyer had me caring more about the fate of this pitiable young lady, trapped in a world she never made, than I did about Bella, Edward, or any number of Cullens.

Then, without missing a beat, Meyer sent in the brute squad to twist off poor little Bree’s head.

Twist off her head. Yo, Stephenie, say hi to Stephen King for me next time you two have lunch.

As you might expect, I found that outcome less than satisfying. Bree dies before I learn anything of substance about who she is or how she got there. Why is she different from the others? Why didn’t she fight? Why is she seeking sanctuary with the Cullens? I was invested in this character. She deserved better. Bree is the mirror-Bella. She illustrates Bella’s fate if things hadn’t fallen perfectly into place, and it’s a terrifying, ugly picture.

It seems Ms. Meyer felt the same way. Sometimes a minor character will pop into a story and refuse to “go gentle into that good night.” Thus, this novella.

In The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, we get Bree’s backstory, most of it, from her point-of-view, plus the scoop on the kamikaze army of newborn vampires dispatched so efficiently by the Cullens and their werewolf allies in Eclipse. Bree and company are, in her words, the “dregs,” the lost children of the night, thrown away by an uncaring society, gone half-mad and feral. There’s a very strong reinforcement of an idea lurking in the background of the Twilight stories—Bree’s situation is typical of vampires. Bella and company are the “one-percenters” in their universe.

Bree remains a sympathetic character at her core, a good girl struggling to survive in a very bad place, but there’s a sinister edge to her condition that moves her beyond the innocent simplicity of a lost waif. Her transformation has made her simultaneously superhuman and something less than human. She hates what she’s become, though she can no longer imagine any other way to live. She’s ruled by her bloodlust and shows no compunction or remorse about killing humans to satisfy it, whether singly or en masse. Humans are food. She can barely remember what it was like to be one.

Even as Bree begins to ponder the morality of how she and the others like her are treated as disposable and are being manipulated to support a larger agenda, she remains a stone-cold killer. Ironically, it’s the expression of one of the last vestiges of her humanity that leads her to reject a chance for escape and seals her fate. Her doom is all the more tragic when we discover she had a way out.

There’s a deeper metaphor here about what it means to be human and to be dehumanized—marred by sin and the evil of a broken world. Like Bree, these ideas deserve more time than they received in Twilight-proper, but there’s only a taste of the powerful story that might have been, had it fallen into the hands of a more formidable author.

Still, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is a solid story, pared of its parent novels’ excesses—a stark, sorrowful tale of a lost girl bound to a fate she didn’t seek, whose courage is admirable but insufficient to save her, and whose brief life as a vampire is anything but sparkly. It stands on its own, but is best appreciated with some prior background in the Twilight series, particularly Eclipse. Teens and up.

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