Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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There has been so much hype for E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey in the past few months. Many have been quick to label the series as “mommy porn”, and James has been credited with bringing sexy back to books. Both comments floor me as a reader. I love romance novels. They are my not so guilty pleasure. Romance and erotica are not new concepts in the publishing world, so I was irked that mass media seemed to be ignoring many other authors’ mass market successes.

At the same time, I have a strange relationship with mainstream fiction. I always want to resist the book-of-the-moment, but then I get so curious that I cave. Why are certain books so popular? I played this resistance game with Harry Potter (loved), Twilight (Mer), and The Hunger Games (decent). So with all the buzz about Fifty Shades of Grey, I knew I would eventually give in and read the book. When my new read hit my Facebook stream, I got decidedly negative feedback from my friends, which sort of surprised me. After reading the novel, my surprise is gone.

Fifty Shades of Grey follows a recent graduate, Anastasia Steele as she begins a turbulent relationship with demanding entrepreneur, Christian Grey. Ana is innocent and intimidated by Christian’s wealth and cold exterior. Yet, she is equally drawn to Christian’s hidden depths and dark desires. Both Ana and Christian must find the balance between what they want and what they need, or risk falling apart.

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Now, when I judge this book it has nothing to do with the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) subculture that’s depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey. That has never bothered me as a reader, and I’ve delved into that world before with some of my favorite romance authors, Emma Holly and Laurell K Hamilton. The sex scenes are well written and keenly balanced. James offers a view in to the realm of BDSM without taking her readers into the culture’s more intimidating intensity. The sex is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. Some may argue that the sex is all a romance reader needs, but there has to be a strong, well-written story to justify a 514 page novel.

I feel compelled to address the fan-fiction history of this series. It’s like The Exorcist: you can’t un-see those  gruesome scenes, and you can’t un-hear that Fifty Shades of Grey was based on Twilight. Even at my most involved with this book, I would recall that Christian Grey is supposed to be Edward Cullen and it would throw me out of the story. Christian exhibits the stalker tendencies that creeped me out with his sparkly counterpart. And while Ana is less dull than Bella Swan, she has the same overwhelming insecurities. Surprise! Both qualities are still off-putting. Though the book doesn’t follow the trajectory of Twilight’s plot exactly, I couldn’t escape the legacy.

James does a decent job of articulating the conflicting emotions that a young girl would face as she enters into an uncertain sexual journey. What hinders the story is an overabundance of telling rather than showing (the ultimate author sin). Ana’s inner monologue often references her Inner Goddess and her Subconscious, and the latter is rather judgmental. The idea could have panned out if the characters were given in small doses. Once the idea is introduced, you can hardly go a page without running into the Inner Goddess or Subconscious. They’re both obnoxious bitches and they ruined the book for me. I wanted to gag them, and not in a way they would find pleasurable. I would have been drawn to Ana’s character more without her Inner Goddess and Subconscious talking for her.

Another element that I thought was overused and abused was the interior reference to “Fifty Shades” found in the title. Christian calls himself “Fifty shades of fucked up”, which if used once or twice would have had more resonance. But after the phrase is said, the floodgates open and suddenly “Fifty Shades” is in nearly every chapter. The more “Fifty Shades” is used, the more the words lose their power.

There were parts of the novel that I enjoyed, but they were overshadowed by what I consider to be errors in storytelling. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in, the story has to be well written. Unless you just want to read it for the sex, I wouldn’t recommend Fifty Shades of Grey. A stubborn part of me wants to finish the series in the hopes that it gets better, but I don’t think I will give in to that impulse.

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