Book Review: The Host

July 20, 2008 | 8 comments
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by Stephenie Meyers (Little, Brown, 2008). 617 pp.

WARNING: major spoilers

Stephenie Meyer’s foray into science fiction is a well-deserved best seller, and a great piece of Mormon literature. The romantic interaction between Bella and Edward and Jacob—wait, I mean between Jared and Melanie/Wanderer and Ian—uh, hold on a second…

The first thing that readers of the Twilight series will notice is a similarity in characters, conflicts, and situation, although in some new configurations. Like the vampires in Twilight, the alien invaders in The Host are parasites who turn normal people into something different. The fundamental conflict in both works involves love between what should be (im)mortal enemies, and the romantic relationships raise questions about the roles that (vampire) bodies and (alien parasitic) minds play in romance and personal identity. Pointing out the similarities is not meant as a criticism; these are interesting themes, and Meyers, like a lot of writers, gets good mileage out of exploring variations on them.

It does open up some possibilities for comparison and speculation, however. The Host is a complete book (although I wouldn’t mind a sequel) that corresponds to an unfinished series whose last installment arrives in a few weeks. Does The Host give away any clues about how the Twilight series will end? I suspect it does. The Host concludes by reconciling the apparently irreconcilable, with Jared and Melanie together again and Ian and Wanderer together at last, and I expect that the Twilight series will end similarly: Bella and Edward will find a way to be together (my guess is that she bites him, and returns him to human form), while overgrown kid brother Jacob will imprint on the she-wolf of his dreams.

But The Host can stand on its own without reference to Twilight. As I’ve written before, Stephenie Meyer has a phenomenal talent for writing opening chapters that keep you reading just a little more, just one more chapter, just a few more pages… In Twilight and here again in The Host, freed from the constraints of writing a series, “just a little bit more” lands you a couple hundred pages into the book, even if sci-fi-romance isn’t your genre. Writers, Mormon or otherwise, should watch Stephenie Meyer closely to see how she does it.

Although it’s an international bestseller, The Host is also a very Mormon book. Metaphysically-minded Mormons will find an opportunity to reflect on the inseparability of human identities and human bodies. At a more fundamental level, there may be something essentially Mormon in retelling Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an interspecies romance from the perspective of a body snatcher. The usual sci-fi approach, and a book that’s been written many times before, would tell how humanity threw off its alien puppet masters, but The Host is not about purification through violence. There’s a silly and vacuous criticism that says Mormon writers can’t write about evil, but there is no art in repeating tired tropes of monstrous horrors. The truth is that evil always has a human face, and that obscuring the humanness of evil is itself evil. The alien parasites in The Host are gentle beings of pure light and good intention who nonetheless commit genocide on a planetary scale many times over. The Host succeeds in showing that human actions are both noble, and as monstrous as the parasites’. Jesus and Satan are brothers, and there by grace, or but for grace, go I.

The Host does not have any overt Mormon themes or characters, although Jared (cough, cough), who has qualms about the last man and woman on Earth going too far too fast, seems likely to have served a mission at some point. The novel’s setting, on the other hand, is thoroughly Mormon. The refuge of the remaining uninfected humans is a self-sufficient outpost somewhere in the West, a long way off the interstate. This is not a place where many Mormons live today, but it’s firmly anchored in our experience and our culture. Despite more than a century of urbanization and Mormon out-migration from Utah, many of us grew up with occasional visits or annual pilgrimages to the old family ranch or grandpa’s farm, some self-contained place off in the desert or up the valley, far from the interstate or blacktop of any kind, that actually might go unnoticed if aliens invaded because often enough that was precisely what it has already done, a hundred years ago. The place off in the desert that the authorities can’t find is an entirely appropriate setting for a novel about men and women pairing off in unequal number (of minds and bodies), with a resolution consisting in equal parts of monogamy restored and tolerance for alternative arrangements.

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8 Responses to Book Review: The Host

  1. Julie M. Smith on July 20, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    A great review. BTW, her name is “Stephenie.”

  2. bfwebster on July 20, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    What I found most interesting about The Host — as someone who has been reading SF for close to half a century now — is how she differently she approached the classic SF trope about parasitic invaders. Relatively little exposition or monologuing — almost no effort to explain technology — it really is written as a romantic (though not “romance”) novel with a highly unusual SF setting. Also, I think a ‘regular’ SF novelist would have gone with a sadder ending.

    As a writer (strictly non-fiction so far), I admire Meyer’s story-telling skills. Like Rowling (or, for that matter, Michael Crichton), she’s not the best writer around, but she knows how to craft a page-turner. ..bruce..

  3. Russell Arben Fox on July 20, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Melissa’s review is here. In a nutshell: 1) far from an “opening chapter that keeps you reading just a little more,” the book is actually much too long, and in particular takes much too long to get going; 2) it may be decked out with sci-fi window dressing, and may be advertised as such, but really it’s more a paranormal or ghost love story than anything else; and 3) yes, yes, she’s got her standards and she’s not writing erotica and for that she has our respect, but honestly: if you’re going to write books loaded with scenes of ostensible sensuality, then how about your characters actually get, well, romantic, eh?

    But hey, to each their own.

  4. Louis on July 20, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    I have a half-serious theory regarding Meyer\’s \’recurring theme\’ of being torn between two loves in both of her books. The story could be interesting, but I had already started the vampire series, and there was nothing new to me. John Lennon wrote Norwegian Wood based on (supposedly) an affair he had and that was the way he communicated it to his first wife. I don\’t sit and brood over this, but when the Host progressed and it became apparent the themes between the Host and the vampire series were very similar (if not identical), I thought maybe Meyer was engaged to her husband while he was on his Mission and had a serious fling in which she questioned their \’plans\’, but ended up marrying him anyway, and this is the way she is letting her husband know (kind of like Norwegian Wood…Mormon Wood?) to assuage her guilt…

  5. Pam W. on July 22, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Thanks for this review — great insights! I liked “The Host,” somewhat to my surprise. I found it more complex and better written than the (shamefully engrossing) “Twilight” series.

  6. Sara R on July 22, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Louis #4: What a horrible thing to speculate about! I haven’t read The Host, but have read the Twilight series and have thought about this theme. Certainly it doesn’t mean that she cheated on her fiance or husband! That’s why they call it fiction.

    I think her discussion of this theme is useful, because it says that even though a person may fall in love with more than one person in a lifetime, you commit to only one–and the commitment is what’s important. Other romance novels talk about a one-and-only soulmate. If you happened to marry the wrong one and find “the right one” later–or in reality, the wrong guy used to be right, and reality is just intervening–then typical romances will say that an affair is justified. See “Bridges of Madison County” or “Cousins” or “Same Place Next Year” or any of a number of chick flicks that justify adultery. This is a dangerous idea, obviously. What Meyer is saying is there might be more than one person out there with whom one might be able to create a happy marriage. But so what? The commitment is what’s important.

    It reminds me of what President Kimball said: “‘Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.”

  7. Rachel W on July 25, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Although I’ve read The Host and the Twilght series, I’m not a huge fan of overdramatic teenage type romances. The books are light reading, predictable, and fast paced, even if they do get bogged down occasionally with whiny, vacillating characters (We’ve known your plan for a chapers, Wanderer, stop beating around the bush and do it already).
    That said, I liked the way Meyer explored how the physical experience of having a body shapes our personality, even assuming a pre-existing eternal nature. That, even more than the lack of gratuitous sex, made the voice of the book distinctly Mormon. It’s the first post-apocalyptic Mormon sf I’ve read since Folk of the Fringe.

  8. Katie T on August 21, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I think it\’s odd that no one seems to comment on the fact that the entire novel was written from the perspective of the alien. Most books you read are about the human fighting off \”the bad aliens\”. I heard a transvestite once say, \”You can\’t hate anyone when you know their story\”; a totally bizarre source, but a poignant statement. It\’s interesting that after the first several pages I found myself sympathizing with an alien who had zero right to steal some other creature\’s body. As a Mormon I kept forgetting that I don\’t agree with someone losing their right to make choices, whether good or evil. I think Meyer is an incredible author with the ability to pull a reader in and make them such a part of the story that you the reader forget the characters do not actually belong to you at all.
    Very interesting, I would love to see more on this vein and I am not even a fan of SF.

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