The dust jacket says The Host is the “first novel for adults” by the author of the Twilight” series of vampire-romances for adolescents, but the readability statistics on Microsoft Word show that Stephenie Meyer is still writing at a fourth-grade level
The Host: A Novel. By Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown, 619 pp., $25.99.
By Janice Harayda
Mysterious things happen in the books of Stephenie Meyer. Take The Host, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. The dust jacket calls the book Meyer’s “first novel for adults.” But right away you wonder: How can this be when the novel has a fourth-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word?
Not that you’d want your 9-year-old to have much to do with this creepily Freudian tale of a woman who is captured by aliens and wages a host-verses-graft struggle with the new “soul” the extraterrestrials have inserted into the base of her skull. The sexual undertones of the story need little elaboration. (“Would it hurt, having something put in your head?” a character wonders. Kids, ask your mothers!) Let’s just say that the book has more than one “insertion” involving a soul that looked like “a silver ribbon” or “slid smoothly into the offered space.”
For all their repressed sexuality, the characters in The Host never seem to get beyond kissing. This is fortunate given that when lips do meet, Meyer describes it this way:
“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”
You can understand why the captured woman, Melanie Stryder, wouldn’t be in the mood for sex, although the Stockholm Syndrome strikes early in the novel. The aliens have conquered most of the earth and threaten to kill Melanie when she won’t obey Wanderer, the “soul” who inhabits her body. So she and Wanderer hide out in caves with a band of rogue humans who are resisting the takeover of the planet.
Tensions flare as the aliens search for the fugitives. These strains may explain why we often read that characters “barked,” “roared,” “groaned,” “howled,” “muttered,” “growled,” or “bellowed.” Aliens do their share of this. (“I groaned internally,” a “soul” says.) But no one can accuse the novel of portraying extraterrestrials unsympathetically. Meyer spares no effort to show how her aliens are different from – and, in many ways, better than — humans, one of which is that they can decide when to die. “It’s a choice,” an alien says. “A voluntary choice.” Just like, presumably, the “voluntary choice” Meyer made to pad this book with many redundancies.
For all of the overexplaining, some things remain unclear. If this is a novel “for adults,” why does the story reassure you that despite the alien takeover, the planet still has soccer games, Snickers and Pop-Tarts? (Why not golf, Chardonnay and goat cheese?) Why do most of the references to sex read like parodies? (One romantic scene – which could be describing a kiss or more – makes lovers sound like candidates a burn unit: “Gasoline and an open flame – we exploded again.”) And why is the book written at a fourth-grade reading level when Meyer was apparently hoping to attract more fans than the teenagers who read her popular “Twilight” vampire series?
The trouble with all of this isn’t that Meyer is a writer of books for adolescents who has tried to move into the mainstream. Many writers – E. B. White, C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle among them – have written beautifully for both groups. Nor is the problem that grown-ups can’t enjoy novels written for younger people. Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, draws on such extensive research into the Revolutionary War that many adults might learn as much from it as children would.
The Host offers further evidence of the Mitch Albom-ization of America — the glut of dumbed-down books masquerading as profound or at least intelligent. On the evidence of this novel, Meyer lacks either the ability or the inclination to adapt her writing for adults. The flap copy says that The Host is about “the very essence” – not the essence but the “very” essence – “of what it means to be human.” Midway through the book, you find a more revealing line, one that shows Meyer’s love of short sentences consisting of words of one- and two-syllables. Pursued by an angry human, Melanie’s resident soul says: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Best line: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” If taken as advice.
Worst line: Lots of competition here. No. 1: “It’s a voluntary choice.” No. 2: “When we thought of the new planet – Earth, so dry, so varied, and filled with such violent, destructive denizens we could barely imagine them — our horror was overshadowed by our excitement. Stories spun themselves quickly around the thrilling new subject. The wars – our kind! having to fight! – were first reported accurately and then embellished and fictionalized.” No. 3: And here’s how a “denizen” named Uncle Jeb speaks: “ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’” No. 4: The line quoted in the review, beginning, “He nuzzled.”
About the reading level: The reading level for The Host comes from the Flesch-Kindcaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. To find it, I used passages of at least 300 words each on pages 31–32 (Grade 4.1), 131–132 (Grade 4.6) and 431-432 (Grade 3.3). The reading levels for the three sections averaged Grade 4.0. American children typically begin the fourth grade at the age of nine. The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of other bestselling or classic novels and tells how to use Word. It tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.
Published: May 2008
About the author: Stephenie Meyer also wrote Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse for young adults.
Answer to Friday’s quiz, “Do You Have What It Takes to Write a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller?”: All of the lines on Friday’s quiz appear in The Host.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.