If there is any greater pleasure than watching your child vanish into a book, it is following her there to see what she sees. This is how it comes to pass in my household that my almost 14-year-old daughter and I are AWOL for long stretches these days. Her obsession with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels made me curious. She's a constant reader of novels, from Harry Potter to The Secret Life of Bees, but not typically a fangirl: never got into Gossip Girl, never bought boy-band T shirts or posters. But now, as the release of the movie version of Twilight approaches, she and her friends have lost their minds. They call it OTD: Obsessive Twilight Disorder. My daughter was mobbed when she brought a movie magazine to school. When Robert Pattinson, who plays the vampire hero Edward, was scheduled to sign autographs at a San Francisco mall, police expected about 300 people: they got 10 times that many, including some who had flown in from Hawaii. Fans got trampled; one reportedly had her nose broken. While I realize this all counts as typical teen behavior, I couldn't help wondering, and worrying a bit, about the stories that inspired it. (See TIME's 10 Questions with Stephenie Meyer.)
When I was 13 it was Barbara Cartland (who was, as it happens, Princess Di's stepgrandmother). She produced a new novel roughly every 10 days by the '90s she'd sold more than a billion books so I could buy four and disappear for the weekend (homework was minimal back in the Dark Ages) and never run out. They were all essentially the same. Dark, mysterious, wealthy hero is too damaged to love deeply. Smart, passionate, innocent heroine finds herself in harm's way. Hero rescues; villains are vanquished; vows are exchanged. And a chaste kiss at the happily ever after. Repeat.
Between my childhood and my daughter's, we've had various revolutions, feminist, sexual, technological. Sex became dangerous again: you may be less likely to get pregnant but more likely to get an STD. When I was in school, it was a major breakthrough when we were permitted to wear pants to class in the winter. I now see girls heading to school who appear to have forgotten to get dressed at all that morning. We were told if we worked really hard, we could accomplish anything boys could; now it would never occur to girls to think otherwise.
Yet some themes, it appears, are eternal. We curled up together this weekend, my daughter and I, as I read Twilight for the first time, she for the third. It's not 19th century London, but the modern Pacific Northwest is appropriately misty. Here we meet the bright, chaste, passionate heroine Bella and the dark, mysterious and certainly dangerous hero Edward, son of a vampire family that has sworn off human blood but still struggles with the temptation. He has a way of appearing when she's in danger, scooping her into his unnaturally strong arms and carrying her to safety. Suffice it to say, it's like nothing I've read since I was 14.
Yes, the writing is often cloying and the plotting uneven. But that is so completely not the point. At a time when characters on the hit teen TV shows can be ostracized for wearing last season's designer shoes, we have no idea what Bella wears besides blue jeans and T shirts. We barely know what she looks like beyond her fair skin, though we know every detail of Edward's luminous looks. She is brave and loyal but not rich or cool, and yet she is the object of passionate devotion by the hottest boy in school who, as it happens, must exercise constant self-restraint around her.