Comparing Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight to Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird was a more interesting project than I expected… Really! They are surprisingly similar: both authors hang their stories on a folk tale; Meyer’s is vampires and Oyeyemi’s is Snow White. In both books girls come of age, move out of a parent’s house, and head north. Both meet difficult men. But the stories are also so different. Why is one book workmanlike and the other a work of art? I’m not philosopher enough to define art, but I do think a complex work has a better chance of being art than a simple one, and Boy, Snow, Bird is denser, more thoughtful, and more ambiguous than Twilight.
Twilight is play-by-play. A damsel in distress is rescued repeatedly by an angst-ridden teen vampire whose mystery and reticence intrigue her. Women of some experience will want to warn Bella that male stoicism gets old, and they will yearn to sit down with her at the dining table and help her fill out college applications. (I confess: at page 200 I put the book down and did what kids do who don’t want to read an assignment: I watched the movie, which is not bad! The photography is gorgeous, the music sophisticated, the editing concise, and the leads are pretty.) Twilight is full of danger and death, but I never really worried about Bella; she’s safe. She’s the heroine of a story about teen girls moving into adulthood, and in spite of the vampires, Meyer offers them an easy transition.
Oyeyemi isn’t as comforting. Bella’s parents may be lovable dimwits who want the best for her, but Boy’s mother is absent and her father is a sadist. Bella flees from her mom’s house to her dad’s house; Boy just flees. Edward protects Bella with his superpowers and his love; the men in Boy’s life keep secrets at Boy's expense to protect themselves.
You can race through Twilight because it’s simple. You can race through Boy, Snow, Bird, too; it’s a compelling story and you want to find out what happens next, but let the details slow you down. Savor the more original writing. (Oyeyemi avoids cliches, Meyer repeats them: she never lets Bella start her pickup truck, it always has to roar to life.) Edward will always rescue Bella, but events in Boy, Snow, Bird aren’t as predictable. Boy’s life gets violent, confusing, and surprising (and not in the “Boo!-I’m-a-vampire!” kind of way).
I was unenthusiastic about reading Twilight, but I’m glad I did—well, half of it, anyway—because Boy, Snow, Bird was part of the package, and the two books together gave me another chance to consider the difference between an amusing ride and an important work. That’s brain exercise nobody should turn down.