The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening by L.J. Smith
The great Commonwealth of Virginia! The “Mother of Presidents” is also the site of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent; Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil war; the Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach, where Navy SEALS are trained; the CIA headquarters; and the beautiful Hunt Country, resplendent with old money, new wineries, polo matches, and antiques. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both built gorgeous homes (which you can still tour today) in Virginia. Blackbeard was tried and executed in Williamsburg. Some of the most celebrated battles of the Civil War took place here.
…Yeah, I’m not writing about any of that today.
Instead, I bring you The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening, the first volume in the long-running series by L.J. Smith. Today we know The Vampire Diaries best as Appointment T.V. on the CW network featuring the lovely Nina Dobrev, the delicious Ian Somerhalder, and some other guy. (Okay, fine. The handsome Paul Wesley. Happy now?) But first, it was a book. Was it a good one?
First I’d like to point out what’s remarkable about L.J. Smith’s series: Its age. I was flat astonished to learn that The Awakening was first published all the way back in 1991, meaning that it predates Edward and Bella, the Argeneaus, the Black Dagger Boys, most if not all of Christine Feehan’s sparkling oeuvre, and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer—both the show and the movie. Say what you will about Smith–she was way ahead of her time in some respects.
In others, though, she was very much of her time. Elena Gilbert, our heroine, is described as “cool and blond and slender, the fashion trendsetter, the high school senior, the girl every boy wanted and every girl wanted to be.” On the first day of school, she dresses herself in “a pale rose top and white linen shorts combo that made her look like a raspberry sundae. Good enough to eat…” In other words, Elena is a Sweet Valley twin!
But instead of living in sunny California, Elena—an orphan with a hefty trust fund—attends Robert E. Lee High School in sleepy little Fell’s Church, Virginia, where she is top dog and queen bee. She has just spent the summer in Paris indulging in conspicuous consumption, as one did back in the late ’80s, and is prepared to resume her position at the top of the social hierarchy but is taken aback when a former friend, the flame-haired Caroline—whose “cat-green eyes” are both “slitted” and “smoky”—challenges her:
“A lot of things changed while you were gone this summer, Elena…and just maybe your time on the throne is running out.”
Elena had flushed; she could feel it. She struggled to keep her voice steady. “Maybe,” she said. “But I wouldn’t buy a scepter just yet if I were you, Caroline.”
HIGH SCHOOL BITCH FIGHT WOO HOO! But Elena is quickly distracted from lesser concerns by her rapidly growing fixation on a new boy who drives a “sleek black [Porsche] 911 Turbo,” sports dark glasses and an Armani leather jacket, and does not hesitate to put an overbearing history teacher in his place. His name is Stefan, and he takes a completely novel approach to the smitten Elena’s advances: He ignores them. She’s alternately mortified and confused, and it’s only after several horrible crimes are committed around Fell’s Church that he confesses: He doesn’t hate her—he’s in love with her! Actually, Elena resembles his lost love, Katherine:
“I don’t hate you,” he continued, pronouncing each word carefully, distinctly. “I’ve never hated you. But you…remind me of someone.”
Elena was taken aback. Whatever she’d expected, it wasn’t this. “I remind you of someone else you know?”
“Of someone I knew,” he said quietly. “But…you’re not like her, really. She looked like you, but she was fragile, delicate. Vulnerable. Inside as well as out.”
“And I’m not.”
He made a sound that would have been a laugh if there had been any humor in it. “No. You’re a fighter. You are…yourself.”
Which, okay, to the extent that Elena actually has a personality, she’s done a good job concealing it up to this point (except for the “entitled bitch” part), but Stefan loves her for her own self, and that’s very nice:
And then she saw it, the anguish shattering his gaze, as if he simply couldn’t fight any longer. The defeat as the walls finally crumbled and she saw what was underneath.
And then, helplessly, he bent his head down to her lips.
We do eventually learn all about Stefan’s backstory with doomed Katherine: In Renaissance Italy, he and his bad-boy older brother Damon both fell in love with the sweet, not-too-bright, arguably unbalanced young thing. She turned them both, intending to spend eternity with the two of them but clearly failing to take into account the fact that the brothers couldn’t stand one another. Stricken with remorse, she eventually ran out into the sun minus her protective lapis lazuli (which would have protected her).
Elena takes the revelation that Stefan is a four hundred-year-old vampire in stride, even going so far as to allow him to
“You shouldn’t be here. Please.” She reached for the candle, meaning to take it and leave him, fighting off the dizziness that threatened to overcome her.
But before she could grasp it, he did something extraordinary. He caught her reaching hand, not roughly but gently, and held it in his cool slender fingers. Then he turned her hand over, bent his dark head, and kissed her palm.
“Don’t…” whispered Elena, stunned.
“Come with me,” he said, and looked up into her eyes.
OMG!!!! Elena loves Stefan, but she’s drawn to Damon. And Damon looks like Ian Somerhalder, while Stefan is handsome enough, I suppose. (Okay, I may be projecting a bit here.) Then the bodies start piling up around Fell’s Church, Stefan, under grave suspicion, appears to have skipped town, and the only person who can clear his name is his bitterest rival. Cue the dramatic music!
I came to this book late, a couple of weeks ago, in fact, and it’s true that I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I do have to admit that sixteen-year-old Me would have been all over this thing. What teenage girl doesn’t dream of having loads of independent wealth, a wardrobe to die for, boundless popularity, loyal friends, worthy enemies like cat-eyed Caroline, no pesky parents (only a somewhat ineffectual aunt) hanging over her shoulder, and not one but two devastatingly handsome and sophisticated older men declaring undying love for and passionately fighting over her? (One thing the book never adequately explains: Stefan is a young man, true, but why does he choose to start fresh as a high school student of all things? Is there anyone, anywhere, who would voluntarily relive those years? I mean, if he can pass for 18, he can pass for 19—why not go to college instead? I always wondered this about Edward Cullen, too. At least Angel didn’t pretend to be a student.) All that and Ian Somerhalder, too! Far-fetched and melodramatic as it is, The Awakening represents teenage wish fulfillment at its overheated finest.
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.