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R&R 134 | Fifty Shades of Grey

E.L. James
Fifty Shades of Grey
First published in: 2011
This edition: Vintage, 2012
ISBN: 97-0-345-80348-1
Genre: erotic romance, adult
Pages: 514
Cover design by Jennifer McGuire; photography by Papuga2006 | Dreamtime.com

R&R 134 | Fifty Shades of Grey

Wow, it took a while for me to get back to reviewing. I'm a little rusty.

I could properly begin this review by first clarifying why I was hesitant about reading this book. It was not about its subject. I'm a 29 year old woman who was raised in an environment where sex was never a taboo. I have nothing against eroticism, whether it's subtle bed scenes in love stories, or Alcide literally jumping his were girlfriend's bones like WHOA! in True Blood. The only reason I will not watch Eyes Wide Shut is because I am repulsed by Tom Cruise, not because I'm offended by any sexual lifestyle between consensual adults, including the Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism or SadoMasochism (summed up to the acronym BDSM) lifestyle.

I didn't really plan on reading Fifty Shades of Grey because (sigh) it's Twilight fan fiction (that is how James started this series), and I really didn't want to relive Twilight, much less read a derivation of it, which in short is about Anastasia, a naive virgin who gets involved with hot billionaire / BDSM aficionado Christian Grey. They're way into each other. Steamy sex and spanking ensues. Fangs are not included.

So, hesitant. But rule number 1 of being a book reviewer is: don't judge it until you've read it. In the end I decided I wanted to have an informed opinion because it's all anyone's talking about right now. Oh and my American twin was going to read it, so I had to order a copy, too. We giggled on Skype about how utterly trashy it would be, and fun because of it. I found myself actually looking forward to reading it, and I freakin' loved the idea of reviewing it. "Dis gun be gud," I thought as I snuggled up in my bathrobe and fuzzy bath slippers, this book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I had my notebook at the ready and I read with an open mind, taking it all in.

I enjoyed it exactly because it was the crap that I thought it would be. It's that feeling that you know something is so bad, and that makes it… I won't say good, but I will say entertaining. It's why White Chicks is a movie I'll always watch when it's on TV. I had some laugh out loud moments with Fifty Shades, all due to cheesiness, like when Ana daydreams about "a Christian Grey flavored popsicle". Oh, yuck. But: lolz.

But being amused by a bad book still doesn't make it a good read. My second rule of being a book reviewer is: stay true to your opinion and be critical. Note the good (entertaining in ways & amusing – check) and never leave out the bad, no matter how many toes you step on or how bitchy people will think you are.

I understand why people enjoy reading this book, but I resent it being a "best book" of anything. And I'll tell you why: Fifty Shades of Grey's writing is heinous. And when I say "heinous", I want you to imagine the Law & Order intro voiceover guy (Steve Zirnkilton!) is the one who's actually saying it. Heinous. I tried to not get annoyed by this, but James left me no choice. I'm against this book being a hype and IT getting movie deals instead of any other book of substance that's actually well written.

E.L. James is British, and I could tell from the way she wrote certain things. There were obvious British colloquialisms (e.g. "dressing smartly", "ringing someone"), but I also noticed it in Christian Grey as an entire character. I'd been watching The Voice of Australia during the time I read this book, which features Seal as one of the judges. And one way or another, his British, silky voice snuck in my head when I was reading Christian's dialog. And it fit beautifully. There wasn't anything really American about Christian, not convincingly anyway. Not in my reading experience.

It gets worse: there's a painful amount of repetitive phrasing in this book. Several other reviewers have actually counted repeated phrases and posted lists. Examples: Ana blushes / flushes various shades of crimson throughout the book (which explains the photo for this review). Christian Grey runs his hand (with the "unusually elongated index finger", which is the most obnoxious penis metaphor ever – we get it, he's hung) through his hair countless times, chiding Ana again and again for endlessly biting her lower lip.
…where does James live? I want to mail her a thesaurus.

Almost every page of this story, narrated poorly by Ana, contained either an "Oh my!" or "Holy [insert hell, shit, crap, etc]!" or "geez". Ana also kept telling us about her "Inner Goddess" versus her subconscious. The phrasing makes me feel that Ana, like Christian, is an inconsistent character. This book reads like a teenaged virgin's diary, yet James wants us to believe this story is told by Ana, the intellectual literature graduate, who loves Jane Austen. (Jane Austen would turn over in her grave.) Having Ana mention her "medulla oblongata" randomly in order for her to sound smart after all doesn't cut it. It's just too bad this book isn't intentionally satirical.

I wasn't a fan of the epistolary style here, in the form of several email exchanges between Ana and Grey. They were cute at first but then James kept using this technique to fill her pages. Not every book can pull this off. Either you do it well (or briefly) or you don't do it at all.
A small nitpicky thing that bothered me was how Ana's mom rather uncharacteristically blurts out fanfic slang, like she and us readers would automatically know what it means. UST apparently means Unresolved Sexual Tension. If you're selling fanfic as a novel, edit it like one.

The sex scenes were well written at first but became uninspired quickly. I know this book is supposed to be a fantasy, but the sex scenes paint an unrealistic picture of women losing their virginity and female sexuality in general. I don't know or understand much about the BDSM lifestyle, but I don't think James understands it (I'll get back to that later) or eroticism, either. I don't think she really knew what she wanted this book to be. Her "heroine" is wide open for business and climaxes at the drop of a hat, all the while convincing herself she is now A Legit Sex Goddess. But she cannot say the word "vagina", instead referring to her lady bits as "down there", of course shyly blushing pink/red/salmon/burgundy while doing so, because "oh my."

Which leaves my biggest and most predictable issue with this book: the unhealthy relationship between Ana and Grey. And by unhealthy, I do not mean the BDSM lifestyle. By unhealthy I mean how Christian Grey is epitomized as Mister Right, with an immensely insecure Ana fawning over him. Meanwhile her sense of self, her values and her brains seem to just trickle out of her ears every time Grey so much as looks at her. Ana frequently mentions how hot and rich Grey is. Because apparently that is what gives a man merit. His looks and his checkbook. Oh and listening to classical music. #extracheese

Like I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I am aware that Fifty Shades is about giving female readers a fantasy story. Women like the idea of being able to fix a flawed, handsome man. Which is exactly my damn problem with this book. Because Christian's not just a flawed, commitmentphobe with a warm heart underneath it all, simply A Broken Handsome Man dealing with obstacles and heartbreak from his past who just needs some of Mary Sue's tender loving care. Nooo, Christian's a borderline psychopath who enjoys hurting women. I feel BDSM is stereotyped, and used to justify assholery – Grey gets off on slapping women but it's okay, he has a special room of pain and uses sensible whips only. It's sexy now. I mean, Ana climaxes all the time. (I later learned that he especially enjoys spanking women who look like his mother. What are you still doing here? Run for the FUCKING hills, ladies!)

I cannot believe a secretive, manipulative, emotionally stunted, arrogant control freak like Christian Grey (or his twin Edward Cullen) is Woman's idea of a Dream Man. I can't speak for the rest of you, but he's not MY idea of a Dream Guy, anyway. Or Ana's (after all, she kept whining and trying to change the guy!). Perhaps if the book remained erotic and sexual (with two people actually mutually enjoying each other) then I could see it being a fantasy and enjoy it as such. But no, it had to be a love story. Which for me ruined the fantasy part. This book is like a Nicholas Sparks novel on Heisenberg's blue meth. It doesn't work for me this way.

The only way for Fifty Shades to redeem itself to me is if Ana does not stay with Christian in the end. And that in itself is not my idea of a good romance story: when you end up NOT rooting for a couple.

So, is this book worth reading? Why ask, you've already read it! I'll leave that up to you, but advise you to take everything with a truckload of salt. I think women respond to fantasies differently and I for one am just not into Christian Grey.

The fact that this book is so popular does mean that – female – sexuality is less of a taboo with the sale of every copy. (It's like Sex and the City never existed, but ok.) That's never a bad thing. It's just too bad the book's message about love and sex literally blows.

I think I would have gotten more enjoyment from a Harlequin novel, and I say that in all seriousness. Because that's fantasy and romance, and enjoyable, but not trying so hard to sell a dysfunctional man as Mister Right, a messed up relationship as The Ideal Love Story, The Perfect Fantasy. No thanks. I'll stick to reality.

COMMENTS MODERATED. LET'S KEEP IT FRIENDLY.

Karin Elizabeth
14 Comments
  • Beautiful review!
    To me BDSM in this novel (or vampires in Twilight) is just an excuse for writing a twarthed love story. I feel like the main point of the 'fantasy man' in these stories is his ability to take care of everything in the girl's life. Even if Anastasia tries to reject Grey's presents and help, at a certain point she gives in (I am speaking about the first book, I don't know about the others two). Could it be readers are fascinated by the idea of winning a rich and successful lifestyle without actually having to earn it? This would be not only dysfunctional but also counter-educational.

    September 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm
  • Kari
    Reply

    As ALWAYS, your reviews OWNS! People, specially women, should watch more porn, have more sex etc instead of reading this book. But, if this book encorages them to do so, it's merit is great.

    September 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm
  • I agree with you that the message is wrong. It always seems we women are 'permitted' to enjoy sex only as passive subjects (in this case really really passive, in every area). It is still difficult for men to accept a woman who lives her own sexuality in an active way without labelling her in some negative or limited way.
    You're right, certainly a strong male character is really ejoyable even to me, but while I am 34 and already a grown woman with some life (and love) experience and able to understand the difference between fiction and life, most readers of this novel appear to be adolescent or even preadolescent and this sound really dangerous to me. These books are appealing to them but they certainly need more life-inspiring characters!

    September 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm
  • Cookie
    Reply

    You have made some valid points. I do have to confess, I LOVE love love the books. It takes you away from reality (yes it's terribly unrealistic) but that's the point. The sex is interesting and unusual and passionate – which is apparently enough to get the "average" readers pulse racing.
    Today women are making SO many decisions. What's for dinner, did I pay all the bills, work, play dates etc etc etc. I think the fantasy of a man who takes care of you COMPLETELY is part of what makes the fantasy. You don't like to shop? Here's a closet of perfectly selected clothes. Need to get somewhere? Taylor will drive you! Have you eaten? The house keeper will whip something up. He cares "obsessively" which in reality, yes it would suck, but in fantasy?….oh yes please!
    She does insist on working (and wins herself some battles or compromise) she sets her "hard limits"
    I loved them. Sure they are no literary prize, but man…..they sure were sexy good fun! Just sayin.
    (my husband calls it "fifty shades of YAY!)

    September 3, 2012 at 8:33 pm
  • Sarah
    Reply

    Fantastic review! You really have hit the nail on the head in so many arenas (oops, definitely a few mixed metaphors there). I approached it the exact same way, and even likened it to Twilight in passing conversations.

    September 3, 2012 at 9:23 pm
  • Robert
    Reply

    As always, just love your reviews – glad you're back. I'm 3/4 through the book and stalled.

    September 4, 2012 at 1:19 am
  • Hike
    Reply

    Awesome review, as always. I have not read this book yet but it's on my to-be-read pile. I bought it out of curiosity after the SNL parody (very funny)

    "And when I say "heinous", I want you to imagine the Law & Order intro voiceover guy (Steve Zirnkilton!) is the one who's actually saying it."

    This almost made me go lizzing, I laughed so hard. HILARIOUS. I could totally picture it hahahaa.

    September 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm
  • Jesika (A Goddess of Divine Indifference - from Flickr!)
    Reply

    They can keep Christian Grey! I'll take Mr. Darcy any day! Honestly it sounds like Mr. Grey can be placed right beside Heathcliffe. I just don't understand the attraction women have to male fictional characters that are like this!!

    Thanks so much for this review!! It convinces me even more to never bother reading it!!!

    September 7, 2012 at 2:15 am
  • Cait
    Reply

    Great review! I haven't been able to bring myself to read 50 Shades yet, and your review is just another reason why I won't.

    To me there are erotic books and then this. I'll stick to erotic books that don't pretend to be more than they are, then Twilight fan fic with 2 main characters who (it seems to me) don't actually know what the definition of BDSM is.

    September 9, 2012 at 12:35 am
  • Thanks for the indepth review and the reasoning. I have not read these yet.. holding out as long as possible.

    Thanks for your honesty 🙂

    (and new follower cant wait to hear more)

    May 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm

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