So, in a nutshell, here's what the book is about: Bella's an angsty teen girl in a new town, and Edward's a sparkly vampire. No, really:
Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn't get used to it, though I'd been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday's hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn't sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.Also, vampire baseball.
A lot of people are really passionate about these books. Some of them love and defend them passionately; others... well. I'm not going to defend them any more than I'm going to defend Twinkies--you go and get yourself a Twinkie when you have a very specific kind of craving
But I do have three theories as to why the books are so popular, and they all complement each other--that is to say, I think they're all working simultaneously:
1) "Vampire" is a metaphor for "teenage boy": I know that it's women who are supposed to be the mysterious sex--"What do women want?" and all that--but I personally found boys to be just as enigmatic when I was a teenager. I mean, yes, boys want sex. But it's not as easy as that--okay, you're a teenage girl, you give in, now you're the school slut, or the thrill is gone and he moves on because you're both, you know, teenagers and probably not ready yet. The real question on a girl's mind is, "What, other than sex, is he thinking about? What, other than sex, do I have to offer someone I'm crazy about?" And if you're a teenage girl with low self-esteem, the answer you're going to come up with to that second question is going to be, "I don't have anything, because I'm not pretty or special or worthy, so if I don't want to immediately put out, I have nothing, and I have no chance." The obvious answer being "sex" actually makes it harder, because you've got that looming in front of you, and maybe a kind of despair--are you going to have to give in if you want a boy to like you? What if you aren't ready? What if you're scared?
Enter Edward Cullen and his bizarro moodswings. Edward is everything that is confusing about the opposite sex writ large; I find it particularly telling that his first encounter with Bella makes her think that he hates her. The entire buildup to their first kiss is this love/hate push-pull of trying to figure out what he's thinking, and it turns out the whole time he was trying to figure out what she was thinking. So, having established that all along they were both crazy about each other the whole time (and wouldn't it be nice if that was really the key to the mystery of the sexes?), Edward and Bella then settle down to wrestle with their various "hungers." But Edward struggles manfully with both his hungers and hers--he's always the one to pull away when either he or Bella goes too far. Consider, also, that young girls tend to gravitate towards "safe," often semi-androgynous celebrities at this age (cough*Hanson*cough) because they're less threatening to a girl's developing sexuality. Sex is possible, and a forbidden thrill to contemplate, but it's not a danger: you're safe with Edward, because he loves you just that much, and he's never going to pressure you because he wants to protect you from himself.
2) Girls like bad boys: Believe it or not, this is actually tied to Point #1. I've held this as a general theory for a while, so listen up, nice guys (or Nice Guys), but maybe not for the reason you'd think. I actually don't think girls like a guy who treats them bad. But I do think they--we--get off a little on the idea of changing someone for the better, or the idea of having the power that someone loves us so much that he'll change or sacrifice something for us. (I don't have the patience for fixer-uppers in real life--if I'm going to be with you, I want you to be a fully formed, fully actualized self before I get there--but I'm a sucker for the trope in literature.) A nice guy doesn't need to change, and, most importantly, he's already nice to everyone. How do you know that you're special if he treats everyone else with as much kindness and respect as he treats you? The "bad boy" type, though? He may range from simple, garden-variety jackhole (hello, Sawyer!) to appalling psychopath (hello, Dr. Lecter!), but you know he loves you because he's completely different around you. You are an exception to his very nature. This is how "villain" ends up drifting towards "antihero"--Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, Spike on Buffy, fanfic!Draco Malfoy--but you even see it with straightforward heroes: Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester are both cold, prickly, withdrawn types until Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre arrive, respectively, to bewilder and melt them. That's the fantasy. (Note: this is not a comparison of quality.)
Now, the problem is that, in real life, tigers rarely change their stripes. Sure, your jerk of choice may start out giving you the special treatment, but as the novelty of the relationship wears off, he's going to do exactly what the nice guy does: he's going to treat you just like he treats everyone else. Except that with the jerk, this is exactly where you don't want to be. But you'll remember the good times long after you're getting the full jackass treatment--you've just got to try to change him harder, right? (Ugh.)
So, the theory in regards to Twilight: Edward spends at least half the book struggling rather violently with himself not to ravage Bella, "his brand of heroin." And the harder he has to struggle, the more attractive he is to the reader, because that's just how much he loves Bella. And Bella is essentially the reader's proxy. So you have this guy who--we are reminded endlessly--is an Adonis on earth, and if you were anyone else, anyone not adorably clumsy and secretly hot and smelling naturally of freesia, you would be toast. But you're special.
3) Wish fulfillment: I really cannot stress how important this element is, because I think it's also the reason that Harry Potter grabbed the cultural imagination. You're not a neglected orphan sleeping in a cupboard! You're a wizard! You're the bestest wizard of all and you're also great at sports and you had rich, wizardly parents who loved you so much they died for you (but you've still got their money) and also, we brought you birthday cake! And then you, through Harry, are plunged into this fantastically detailed wizard world. I mean, shit, I'm sold. And I think most things that really grab people are going to tap that "I want to be that person and live in that world" vein. I want to be Elizabeth Swann, I want to be Lyra Belacqua, I want to be the Pevensie kids. (I don't know that Lord of the Rings is wish fulfillment precisely, but Tolkien very cannily positions both Bilbo and Frodo as the reader's proxy--the mundane, home-loving hobbit suddenly swept into a crazy world of wizards and legends and adventure. And you know, Frodo's long trek through Mordor is hardly the stuff of wish fulfillment, but then, that's always the section where I start to get restless. So there may be something to the theory, even there.)
So with Twilight, Bella leaves her flaky, remarried mother to move to a new town and a new school with her silent-type small-town police chief father. She immediately takes up several pages telling us how she doesn't fit in anywhere and she's not like other people and no one understands her (which is actually pretty standard for a teenage girl. I for one started having strong
I'm not saying the books don't have
1) Screw you, Mom and Dad! I wanna die and be a vampire!
2) ... Before I get old and wrinkly, ew!
3) I know that parents seem to dig these books because of the abstinence message (see Big Paragraph Point #1), but... does the teen death theme not bother them at all? And speaking of lessons for the younger readers:
4) It's totes okay for a guy to stalk you and watch you while you sleep so long as he's hot.
5) Considering that Bella's mom is her "best friend," Bella sure doesn't act like it. And I'm speaking as someone whose mother is her best friend. In fact, all of Bella's non-vampire relationships are extremely perfunctory. She barely tolerates her female friends, and...
6) Omg, the nerve of these teenage boys to actually like me and show me around on my first day and try to ask me out. GAH.
7) "I couldn't allow him to have this level of influence over me. It was pathetic. More than pathetic, it was unhealthy." SING IT, BELLA--wait! No! Why are you not singing it anymore? Go back! Go back!
8) How many times is Edward described as being "angelic" or "godlike"? So many, many times.
9) Bella's "gratuitous drug use" is hilarious: UNNECESSARY COLD MEDICINE OH NOES. I know Stephenie Meyer is Mormon and has said there's a number of chemicals she doesn't approve of consuming (like caffeine, for example), but she lets Bella suck down, like, four Cokes at a restaurant, so I don't want to hear it about the Gratuitous NyQuil Abuse.
10) There's finally a character named Lauren--my real name--in a book I've actually read, and she's a nasal bitch. THANKS, STEPHENIE MEYER.
So basically, there's a lot of problems, and this isn't even getting into the writing itself. And my understanding is that the next two books are rather more rage-inducing in terms of the examples they set for young readers, but I can't speak to that yet. (Oh, by the way: for anyone who thinks that Twilight is "deeper" than Harry Potter, ask yourself if you'd be willing to read a book about nothing but Harry and Ginny's tortured love-angst, cutting out every single other plot point in the entire seven-book series.) However, it took me about four hours to power through the first, and I giggled through the whole thing, and man, did I need a four-hour giggle session right now. It's particularly rewarding now that we actually know that Robert Pattinson's playing Edward in the movie, because you can totally see him every time Bella mentions despairingly that Edward looks like he's fresh from a hair gel commercial or something. And apparently the rest of the movie is also filled with attractive people, so... I'm not saying I want to throw a vampire prom or anything, but I know what I'll be doing for my birthday when Twilight comes out just two days before.
ETA: Read a first half of Midnight Sun/large chunks of Twilight recap here; read more Twilight series recaps here.