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Midnight Sun Can’t Correct Twilight’s Flaws. But It’s a Much Better Book

6 minute read

I was a junior in high school, just like Bella Swan herself, when Twilight fever found me. I stayed up all night reading Stephenie Meyer‘s hit 2005 novel, pulled into the narrative despite its obvious flaws: the controlling habits of Bella’s vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen, the absurd pace of their romance. My friends and I saw the movie in theaters together, shrieking with laughter at Edward’s glittering skin. But at home, alone with the book and its three sequels in hand, I admit it wasn’t so funny. Bored and fantasizing about the epic romances my life might yield, I yearned for the intensity of that odd pair even as I rolled my eyes at their drama and bristled at unrealistic plot jumps. It was so dumb, yet I craved it.

And soon I discovered the early draft of Midnight Sun, the novel told from Edward’s perspective, which leaked online in 2008. Where Twilight, like Bella, was straightforward and rather naive, Midnight Sun was dynamic and messy. This month, over a decade later, Meyer published Midnight Sun in full—and set off a debate about how it stacks up against the original. The teen fan inside me was eager to revisit Meyer’s brooding vampire world to see how it all turned out. And though it’s always dangerous to return to past guilty pleasures, I was not (totally) disappointed.

First, it should go without saying that 658 pages of excruciatingly detailed vampire thirst makes for a dull and likely unsettling read if you’re not already a Twi-hard, or at least a casual fan. The dialogue and plot twists will feel familiar to anyone who has read the original book or seen the movie. And the major flaws of the Twilight series—its depiction of a problematic romance, its turgid prose and its careless treatment of Indigenous characters—remain. I can’t say that Midnight Sun is a good book. But it is more complex, more sophisticated and less innocent than Twilight. Although it was Bella’s story that launched more than a decade’s worth of young adult sci-fi and dystopian heroines, it turns out the narrative power—and compelling internal drama—was on Edward’s side all along. The blood flows more freely here, even if it never quite spills.

Despite its status as a pop cultural phenomenon, Twilight was ultimately a chaste tale of forbidden love, further complicated by a steep imbalance of power. Bella was a damsel in distress who submitted to the otherworldly appeal of her decades-older boyfriend. One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Twilight, particularly in the MeToo era, is that Edward was wildly controlling. He hid in Bella’s bedroom at night to watch her sleep. He followed her out of town, infantilized her and stalked her when he worried about her health. He was creepy and domineering, and the couple’s dynamic was toxic.

Midnight Sun doesn’t excuse that. But it does describe Edward’s interior conflict as he makes those bad choices. He knows these things are wrong. Meyer seems to say that he’s too much of a vampire and too little of a human to refrain from doing them (a flawed argument itself). Ever brooding, Edward tortures himself with questions that feel attuned to the past few years’ reckoning with gender and power. His internal struggle plays out as though Meyer considered how best to address the outdated power dynamics, clarified by the MeToo movement, without changing the fundamentally regressive design of his character. It’s a nod in the right direction, but without resolution.

Still, it’s far more fascinating to discover the world of the vampires through the eyes of one of their own. Midnight Sun is about 150 pages longer than Twilight, and those extra passages give readers new insights into Edward’s personal history. Frozen at 17, he’s nearly a century old, and in anguish over some of his moral mess-ups of decades past. A whole chapter recounts his murder of a pedophile. Another sees him recall his painful transition to a vampire. In his memory, we travel to other cities, meet other vampire covens and learn new vampire lore. Meyer was always at her best in building the vampire world, from supernatural abilities like Edward’s mind-reading to the complex social dynamics that govern his and other vampire families. Even as he’s jumping between treetops and tracking down mountain lions for a meal, Edward in Midnight Sun is wise, long-suffering and acerbic. He’s at turns cocky and insecure, his internal monologue a constant push-pull of animal needs and rational, almost clinical, decision-making.

Somehow, it makes the romance more believable—if also more disturbing. In Twilight, mere weeks after their first encounter, Bella confessed her “irrevocable” love for Edward. Adolescence can be like that: one moment you’re stuck in the fog of a fluorescent-lit biology class, the next you’re jittering with uncontrollable hormones. But seeing Bella fall for Edward with so little buy-in, transforming him from a stranger to an all-consuming obsession overnight, made for a jarring jump.

From Edward’s perspective, the love story has more dimension. Meyer wants us to understand the primal urges that drive him, the danger he presents and the magnetic pull Bella exerts on him. These descriptions fill up the bulk of the book. And Edward’s narration offers a more visceral telling of their physical encounters—to Edward, Bella’s blush isn’t just a blush; it’s a delectable bloom of blood behind the thin skin of her cheeks. The progression toward love feels more natural as he masters his impulses and discovers the layers of his attraction. But it also throws into sharp relief the gap between their levels of experience in the world. Though they both inhabit the bodies of 17-year-olds, the Edward of Midnight Sun is undeniably the adult, while Bella’s adolescence becomes all the more obvious; he even calls her human friends “children.”

Perhaps Meyer’s most successful switch-up in Midnight Sun is in her use of Edward’s perspective to turn Bella into a more sympathetic character, as viewed from the outside. Where Bella insisted in Twilight on the facts of her ordinariness, Meyer makes a concerted effort in Midnight Sun to prove she was special after all. Edward sees Bella as wholly good and selfless to a fault—with added examples to prove it this time around. But Bella is still the least interesting thing about Twilight and Midnight Sun. She has always been a blank slate of a character onto which teenage readers hungry for romance and adventure could project themselves.

In a world where Midnight Sun had existed before Twilight, or instead of it, there’s no doubt we’d still find it problematic. But a teen girl like me might have read the story as what it ultimately became: a cautionary tale.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com