By Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
After reading the best-selling novel The Host, I can clearly envision a teenage Stephenie Meyer sitting at a table in her high school cafeteria, sharing the pages of her latest story with her 17 Best Friends Forever. The pages are passed impatiently from hand to waiting hand, the breathless silence broken only by sighs of delight and gasps of surprise. Nothing has changed since those days for Ms. Meyer except that her table now includes over a million best friends.The author is best known for her vampire tetralogy (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and the recently released Breaking Dawn), which you can find in the teen section of any respectable bookstore. The Host has been touted as her first book for an adult audience, although I can see no evidence that it deserves to be classified as such. It reads like the most mediocre of teen novels: the action is simple, linear and easy to follow, characters are one dimensional and moral issues are unclouded by the conflicts humans face daily.
The worst, and paradoxically the best, that can be said about The Host is that there is nothing really terrible about it. It did not cause me to twitch and groan at twisted metaphors or bad imagery (someday we will sit down and discuss the delights of Jackie Collins, shall we?). At no point did I scream “Get an editor, you moron!” as I’ve been known to do while reading… well, let’s call them Stephen K. and Anne R. Lack of internal logic did not cause me to hurl the book against the wall in frustration and disappointment. But, adequately written as it was, I can’t see myself recommending it to any of my BFFs, at least not to those who’ve done me any favors.
Okay, I’ll come clean. What bugs me the most about this book is readers’ reactions to it. If the fact that it is a bestseller doesn’t cause me enough pain, I have the customer feedback from a major bookseller’s web site to add the salt. Every third or fourth review praises Ms. Meyer for her imagination or wonders where she comes up with such inventive ideas. As if it weren’t clear to every 14-year-old boy where these ideas originate. As if it weren’t clear to me… I’ve seen the same scenes played out again and again in books and movies – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Trill race of Deep Space 9, the Animorphs series, All of Me with Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin, for heaven’s sake.
But I get ahead of myself. Let us take a quick spin through the plot of The Host. It is set in modern times. There has been an almost entirely successful attempt to colonize Earth by an alien race called the souls. They are described as small, feathery creatures of incredible beauty, which are inserted surgically into a human body. Each little feathery tendril entwines itself with a portion of the human nervous system and the human that was is no more. The first wave of the invasion is subtle, calm, and faces no resistance. But as the balance tips and the majority of human bodies are become controlled by souls, humans catch on and colonization takes a violent turn. Those human beings remaining become fugitives and are hunted down by special soul forces.
Melanie, one of the novel’s heroines, begins the story as a fugitive. After her capture, her body is implanted with the alien Wanderer, who becomes the novel’s other heroine. But Melanie’s consciousness refuses to disappear; she struggles against the invader controlling her body, eventually convincing Wanderer to leave the community of souls and search out Melanie’s family and loved ones. Most of the novel tells of Wanderer’s quest to prove herself something other than “alien” in their eyes and gain their trust and respect. What we learn from her quest is that aliens are just like us, only kind of feathery. Isn’t that reassuring? For example, Wanderer cares about her adopted family, Uncle Jeb and brother Jamie. Heck, she even does chores:
I answered questions every night after dinner. I found that as long as I was willing to do this, Ian and Doc and Jeb would leave me alone during the day so that I could concentrate on my chores. We always convened in the kitchen; I liked to help with the baking while I spoke. It gave me an excuse to pause before answering a difficult question, and somewhere to look when I didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes. In my head, it seemed fitting; my words were sometimes upsetting, but my actions were always for their good.
I didn’t want to admit that Jamie was right. Obviously, people didn’t like me. They couldn’t; I wasn’t one of them. Jamie liked me, but that was just some strange chemical reaction that was far from rational. Jeb liked me, but Jeb was crazy. The rest of them didn’t have either excuse.
No, they didn’t like me. But things changed when I started talking.
And, as if that weren’t banal enough, our little soul falls in love. But, as all teens know, true love never runs smoothly. In typical fashion, she becomes enmeshed in a love triangle, or maybe I should say a love quadrangle. Melanie still loves her ex-boyfriend Jared but Jared recoils from her alien half. Wanderer, now called Wanda, falls for fellow refugee Ian but can’t pursue it because of a screeching Melanie in her brain. (I think one of the girls in my imaginary cafeteria just fainted from the drama.) Wanda offers up her thoughts:
What was it that made this human love so much more desirable to me than the love of my own kind? Was it because it was exclusive and capricious? The souls offered love and acceptance to all. Did I crave a greater challenge? This love was tricky; it had no hard-and-fast rules–it might be given for free, as with Jamie, or earned through time and hard work, as with Ian, or completely and heartbreakingly unattainable, as with Jared.
Or was it simply better somehow? because these humans could hate with so much fury, was the other end of the spectrum that they could love with more heart and zeal and fire?
I didn’t know why I had yearned after it so desperately. All I knew was that, now that I had it, it was worth every ounce of risk and agony it had cost. It was better than I’d imagined.
It was everything.
If you’re interested in what Meyer has to say to all her teenage fans, I can’t really stop you from reading this book, although I would try. But if you are looking for a good book about aliens, love or what it means to be human, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Try asking that tall, skinny pale kid who works in your local bookstore or library. The gems are out there and he or she knows where to find them.