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Shelf Indulgence

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Chuck Wendig
Samuel R. Delany
Charles L. Grant

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James So, just a few reviews back I mentioned that I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of what I read. I may have called my own bluff with Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I didn’t read in public, or really even advertise I was reading. I hadn’t planned on reading it at all, but my wife and the wife of a friend of mine are reading these for an impromptu book club, and it came down to an “I’ll read it if you read it” dare, and now here we are.

If you look way back into my reviews, you’ll find that I actually read Twilight around the time that it first came out, before it became such a huge phenomenon. I’m not particularly proud of that fact, but at least I can bash the book without having to pull an “I never actually read the book” excuse. I feel the same about Fifty Shades of Grey, because this book is pretty insipid. The characters are flimsy, single-minded, and prone to going outside of their motivations, and the message behind the book is very similar to that of Twilight, which is “If you want to hold on to that gorgeous man as a boyfriend, you’d better be prepared to suffer a whole lot for him and get little in return.” It’s a little insulting and chauvanistic, especially when Christian isn’t a very sympathetic character. He’s a control freak with a tendency for stalking, which fits his dominant character, but it doesn’t make him any more likeable. I guess we’re supposed to like him for his character flaws and his beauty? Again, it’s a lot like Twilight in that respect. Maybe the book should have been titled Fifty Shades of Twilight.

Speaking of Twilight, the characters are pretty much carbon copies of Bella (Anastasia’s insecure and withdrawn, but also crazysexyhot) and Edward (if I had to read one more description of how gorgeous Christian was, I thought I was going to yack), and their relationship was also pretty similar (she doesn’t see herself as worthy of his rich, confident, sexy self). It turns out that this novel started out as Twilight fan fiction, which explains a lot. The difference lies in the erotica portion of the story, which I guess was popular enough with the Twilight fans to make this series popular enough to revamp as its own series.

The book is classified as “Erotic Romance” on the back cover, and it winds up being more “Romance” than “Erotic”; I think there were only about ten to twelve really descriptive sex scenes in the book, which was over 500 pages long. I’ve read other erotica, and I have to say, there’s usually a lot more than that. Plus, I understand that the Harlequin romances are usually more graphic and descriptive that what’s in this book. So what is it that’s driving the popularity of this book? I’m guessing it’s that James perfectly captures the feel of Meyer’s narrative and characters so that all the folks who adored the Twilight series are interested in reading it.

The BDSM part of the book seems to be part of its popularity, too, but James gives Christian a really messed up childhood to make him motivated to pursue that sort of lifestyle. I didn’t think much of it as I was reading it, but as my wife and I were talking about the series after I had finished the book, she mentioned that there are probably more people into that lifestyle who aren’t messed up than the other way around. Christian’s history is only hinted at in the first book, and becomes clearer in the subsequent books, but it’s pretty clear from just this one that he’s not all right in the head about it all.

When I finished the book, I was a little interested in where the story was going, but not so much that I wanted to read the other two books in the series. I just didn’t like the characterization or the junior-high-school nature of the narrative (I swear, I wanted to gag Anastasia’s inner goddess and tie her to a bed, just to shut her up), but I was at least curious as to what was going to happen to the main two characters. I guess that’s something about the book to praise, but even if I hadn’t had my wife fill me in on what happened in the other two books (it doesn’t sound like it really develops much beyond what’s in this story), I probably would have just looked it up on Wikipedia.

I realize that I’m not this book’s target audience, but I can’t help but think that there are (a) better romance novels out there that don’t treat the heroine as a submissive twit (and I don’t mean submissive in the BDSM sense, either), and (b) better erotica written for women. If you’re thinking about reading the books because of the content, then look elsewhere. If you’re thinking about reading them because you want to know what all the fuss is about … well, I can’t really recommend that, either. There’s just not enough substance to back up the hype, unless you’re a rabid Twilight fan.