Aug 25 2008
Dear Ms. Meyer,
While I didn’t think it was perfect, I did enjoy your first young adult novel, Twilight. So when my fellow blogger Jia was unable to get too far into The Host, a genre-bending speculative romantic thriller and your first book for adults, I agreed to give it a try. The premise of The Host, that of an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” type story but told from the viewpoint of a body snatching alien, sounded interesting and different to me.
I must admit at the outset of this review that I almost never read books this long (600+ pages), because they can seem more like monumental tasks than like invitations for enjoyment. It took me around 120 pages to get caught up in The Host, and for those 120 I feared that a monumental task was what the book would turn out to be. Happily, The Host eventually revved up, and I enjoyed it more than I expected I would in the beginning.
The Host opens with a scene in which an alien known as Wanderer is inserted into the body of her host, a human woman named Melanie. At this point in the story, most of the people on Earth have been taken over by a parasitic alien species whose members refer to themselves as the souls. The souls inhabit the bodies of their hosts and take control of them. They have done so before on other planets and they believe they are making Earth a better, more harmonious place by doing so here.
Wanderer has asked to be placed in the body of an adult, but this presents a big problem for her because Melanie, her host, was one of the last surviving people captured by the seekers (a group of souls who devote themselves to searching out the remaining humans and capturing them so they can be hosts for other souls). Melanie attempted suicide in order to resist capture, and now that Wanderer occupies her body, Melanie’s consciousness refuses to go away. While Wanderer has physical control of the body, Melanie’s consciousness talks back to her and makes her life miserable.
In Melanie’s body Wanderer is bombarded by intense memories and dreams that center around a man named Jared, whom Melanie loved. It turns out that the souls are often drawn to other souls who occupy the bodies of the humans whom the people their own bodies belonged to once loved.
The seekers, and one of them most particularly, are interested in Wanderer’s new memories. It’s their job to capture the remaining humans who have formed a resistance and they believe that the memories Wanderer may have attained from Melanie may contain some knowledge of these humans’ whereabouts.
But when Wanderer attempts to access the information Melanie knew, which should now be available to her, she is blocked by walls that Melanie puts up to protect the humans she loved from the seekers. Wanderer’s inability to do as the seeker assigned to her has requested and provide the necessary information stymies and frustrates her, and she is so caught up in the struggle between Melanie and herself that she is unable to form friendships and relationships.
When the seeker suggests that Wanderer leave Melanie’s body for another human body, and allow the seeker to take over Melanie and mine her memories before killing Melanie, Wanderer is at first upset by the suggestion but eventually realizes she may have no other choice but to leave the body that resists her presence.
But before she takes that drastic step, Wanderer wants to visit the healer who inserted her into Melanie’s body, and see if he can help her. She decides to drive from California to Chicago in order to do so. While on her drive, Wanderer is again assailed by memories that belong to Melanie. She realizes that she may be near the humans’ sanctuary and close to the man she and Melanie both love.
With the help of Melanie, who does not want to die, Wanderer finds the human resistance. But what awaits her there isn’t exactly a warm welcome… and the man she remembers loving treats her as the enemy. Much of The Host is the story of how Wanderer eventually earns the humans’ trust and finds love and acceptance, and how the humans find hope. There is also a romantic tangle unlike any other I’ve encountered in the pages of a book, between Wanderer, Melanie and Jared… and eventually, another man who is thrown into the mix.
I liked that the story focused on the interpersonal relationships and on the moral and sociological issues resulting from the science fiction premise. Your website says that The Host is science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction. While I do like science fiction, I generally lose interest in the long explanations of fictional technologies that one sometimes finds in science fiction, and I appreciated the fact that The Host did not contain any of those. The fact that it was set in our own real world made for an interesting contrast with Wanderer’s alien viewpoint.
It takes about 120 pages for Wanderer to first encounter the human resistance members, and as mentioned before, those 120 pages went by rather slowly for me. My interest was not engaged in that section, and I almost gave up on the book. But after the first 120 or so pages, the plot tightens up and the book becomes quite engrossing. There is a lot of tension from the conflicts between the characters and the internal conflicts in Wanda’s heart. The moral dilemmas at the heart of the story are quite compelling, and in the middle section, the book kept me up until the wee hours of the morning.
There are some very interesting aspects to the souls’ background and the other lives that Wanderer, who is eventually nicknamed Wanda, has experienced. Even the names the souls give themselves and to some of things they’ve brought with them to earth fit the souls’ peaceful personalities, and I really liked these aspects of the worldbuilding.
But at the same time, other aspects of the worldbuilding are weak. For example, most of the souls are peace-loving, and it is not explained why enough of them would choose to be seekers and to hunt down the human fugitives. Nor were the explanations of how and why such a non-aggressive species had set out to conquer other worlds convincing to me.
There were also times, in the last quarter or so of the book, when I felt a little tired of reading about Wanderer/Wanda. All but a brief prologue is written in Wanderer/Wanda’s first person viewpoint, so I’m not sure if my Wanda fatigue was due to the fact that I rarely have the patience for spending so many pages in the POV of a single character (I almost never persist with series that follow the same main character past one or two books), or if it’s because of Wanda’s personality.
In the course of the story, Wanda ultimately becomes so self-sacrificing, sweet and sincere that at times I found her difficult to relate to. I don’t know if this would be a problem for other readers, but I prefer flawed characters and Wanda was almost too good to be true.
Also, though some of the humans initially wanted to kill Wanda, her eventual acceptance seemed too quick and too thorough to be entirely believable to me.
When the ending arrives, as heartwarming as it is (and it is very heartwarming), it is also a little like watching one of Cinderella’s stepsisters trying on the glass slipper — something doesn’t fit right. The problem is that because the body snatching premise is so dark, what I feel I know of how most human beings would respond to something like that seems to me to require a grittier tale and an ending that isn’t quite this sweet.
Combine this factor with the fact that Melanie and Wanda both seemed immature to me (albeit in very different ways), and The Host doesn’t always read like a book for adults — there is something of a YA feel to it.
Still, the concept of telling an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” story from a body snatcher’s POV is fresh, the plot takes some unpredictable twists, the romantic conflict makes the love story different from any other that I’ve read, and all of these factors make The Host compelling enough to make me feel that I don’t regret reading it. C+ for The Host.