The new Twilight film is out today, and like lots of other people I know, I'll wait till it comes on telly and watch it with one eye while doing something else, and probably quite enjoy some bits of it despite myself.
This, I'm well aware, is in stark contrast to a huge chunk of the female global population (and some of the male), who will rush headlong to the flicks with excited eyes and red lips, possibly in a suitably Bella-ish shirt and a boyf in tow wearing a dusting of sparkly Barry M Facedust. And I don't begrudge them a second of it.
Or will they? I did this book cover late last year. At the time, I thought little of it - to be honest, I thought its title promised no more than a corny faux self-help guide to finding 'your perfect man', that man being an Edward-a-like (or a Jacob-a-like, depending on which t-shirt you bought). So I vainly encouraged the publishers to go for a white cover (bucking the yawnsome trend for red-and-white on black, which so many Vampire books have employed) and accepted it gracefully when they didn't.
And that, I thought, was the end of my relationship with the book. Until I read it.
You see, when they said it was written by a clinical psychologist with 21 years' experience working with young women, I confess to thinking 'what the hell's she writing about Twilight, then?' To put it simply, for this reason: Louise Deacon has spent years observing the fanatical responses young people have had to the Twilight series, and the significant changes the phenomenon has brought to women and girls' expectations of love, relationships, and life as a whole. And it's actually rather serious.
As Louise says in her introduction:
"I was stunned by the way the girls in the audience reacted; they sighed, gasped and screamed. Never before had I witnessed such a strong emotional reaction to a film. As a psychologist, I was fascinated".
I confess I just didn't 'get' the Twilight thing. I'd illustrated a series many years ago called Evernight, which was a superbly-written collection of novels based around a young couple, one male one female, one vampiric and one human, and their relationship, set in a school. I loved them, so when I saw Twilight, I dismissed it as a rather pale (and rather cheeky) copy of those books. I didn't fancy Edward, I didn't fancy Jacob, I thought Bella was irritating and brought just about everything on herself, and moreover, I thought Edward was a complete fantasy; no-one could possibly love someone so unconditionally that they would lay down their life for them, when the object of that love was so completely irresponsible about their own life, continually, as Bella does, putting herself at risk. And her own self-esteem and confidence issues are 'cured' by Edward's magical, unconditional love.
Turned out I was in the minority there. The females around me went bonkers for it. Of course Edward's a fantasy. Unconditional love from a lantern-jawed teenager with a sparkly face and amazing physical prowess is very appealing. But what Louise Deacon has observed is a generation of young women believing him to be not fantasy, but 'the ideal' - the kind of of boy who they take as their benchmark for a real boyfriend - meaning 'real' men and boys cannot hope to live up to such a blueprint. And leading women to believe that their own self esteem and confidence - important survival tools - are not things they are able to change by themselves. All observations made during her many sessions with unhappy young people in her work.
Bella is described as being very into Romantic Fiction. Wuthering Heights is given as an example - more on that later, but of all the Bronte novels, Wuthering isn't one that falls into the Romantic Fiction category. The 'hero' in it is in reality an anti-hero. A bullying, cruel man, unchangeable, physically violent, desperately unhappy and full of spite and the desire for revenge at his most appalling treatment, he doesn't change, and he can't - no matter how much Catherine adores him, she can't 'love' the misery out of him, and the ending is terrible for everyone his existence touches.
In fact Louise reminds us that the term Romantic Fiction itself has been hijacked to mean something very different today from when it was coined in the late 1700s. The 'romantic' part of it referred to something fantastical, unreal - stories of adventure, knights, fairies and princesses, it didn't refer to love and relationships, as it has come to mean today. As Louise puts it, modern romantic fiction, with its predilection for doggedly happy endings and heroes and heroines magically transformed by the power of love, should come with as strong a warning as porn, for its parallel lack of similarity to Real Life.
The book uses a combination of questions and answers, small chapters, and real-life case studies to highlight the many issues involved. It is gentle, but hard in its truths - phrases like 'love will make incompatible people into compatible ones', 'your love can cure him of his difficulties' and 'love conquers all' are bust wide open not in the spirit of churlishness, but in the interests of forming real, honest, robust relationships between people who trust and respect each other, whatever their physical and mental make-up.
It's impossible to do the book justice here. But it is gripping. It's calmly written, non-inflammatory, and not in the least scaremongery. It is academic, and thorough, and as the author's real-life research has revealed, an important contribution to contemporary female mental health and happiness. The book is nicely ended with a two-page list of where to go for more help if you think you are struggling with any of the the book's issues; from talking to your Mum, friends or doctor right though to Mind, Childline, Refuge and the Samaritans. And in addition, 20% of the proceeds of every copy go to The Girl Effect, an organisation fighting to improve the lives of young women in countries where forced marriage is still a common practice.
I leave it to Louise to summarise, as she addresses her mainly-teenage audience early in the book:
'High-octane romances like Twilight can lead you into the arms of the wrong man, but for some girls, Twilight could mean they won't end up in the arms of any man at all. Are you one of them?'
Here's the clever teaser for the book - the comments underneath are poignantly telling: