Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James; published 2011 by Vintage
The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has become a cultural phenomenon. It has now officially outsold The Hunger Games. It’s the #1 digital bestseller on Amazon. I hear people on TV and radio spoofing it, referencing it, talking about “fifty shades” of whatever-it-is-they’re-selling. I see it on Twitter and the book sites I follow.
So I was quite curious as to what the attraction to this book was. When a coworker offered to let me borrow her copy, I anxiously accepted the chance.
And I devoured it in a single night. 500+ pages. I couldn’t put it down. But I’m not proud of this fact; I’m rather embarrassed and ashamed.
I read this book over a week ago, and for the past week I’ve been trying to pretend that I didn’t read it. I didn’t put it on Goodreads (shocker, I know). I certainly didn’t want to blog about it. But it’s important to be honest and there’s really no point in me writing book reviews if I’m going to skip reviewing the books I don’t like.
If you don’t know yet what Fifty Shades is about, I’ll tell you. It’s a romance novel.
Fresh out of college, Anastasia Steele falls for rich, handsome, and powerful Christian Grey, whose hidden past is a tragic mystery. (Talk about an overdone, yet still compelling, premise.) He offers the sort of romance that every girl dreams of: helicopter rides, expensive gifts, beautiful clothes. But, of course, he has a dark side.
He proposes that Ana become his sex slave because he is into BDSM. This is the secret to the book’s success. It has shock value. It reveals the intimate details of a lifestyle that’s not highly publicized and is often seen as taboo.
Although Ana goes along with a lot of what he wants to do, it isn’t really her thing. She breaks down a lot of the emotional barriers he has. This is another part of the books’ draw: Ana becomes his savior in many ways. She is the first person with whom he has a relationship that is about more than just sex. One of the things I appreciated the most was that Ana refuses to completely bend to his every whim, as he’s used to, and teaches him that relationships are about sacrifice, mutual respect, and compromise.
I also enjoyed the allusions to and quotes from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Christian is at different times compared to Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare. Ana is an English major, literature enthusiast, and book editor to be. Sound like anyone you know?
What I didn’t like was the obvious fantasy the book created. Anastasia Steele is the contemporary “good” woman we all sometimes wish we could be: young, beautiful, virginal, innocent of the world’s corruption, yet also independent, well educated, self-motivated and self-sufficient. She eats rich, fatty food and stays thin. She refuses to exercise. A man like Christian Grey is simply non-existent: he gives Ana money and helicopter rides and expensive clothes, he teaches her about sex, he is more experienced and worldly than she is, yet he respects her feelings, admires her, compliments her, encourages her to eat more, and makes a wonderful impression on her family. Conveniently, he is rich enough to employ a personal assistant and a housekeeper, so that Ana doesn’t have to bother with any of those dull tasks like washing dishes.
At one point I remember thinking, “In real life, this is when she’d walk into the bathroom and the toilet seat would be up and she’d get angry.” It’s the kind of book that makes you forget what it’s like to actually be in relationship with someone. Christian Grey has “faults,” but they’re not the simple, mundane faults that our husbands have. They’re tragic, brought-on-by-childhood-suffering faults, and therefore we excuse them as we aren’t willing to excuse our husbands leaving their dirty dishes in the sink.
The writing is abysmal. Over-sentimental cliché after cliché. I can’t tell you how many times I read, “His breath hitched,” or “her breath hitched.” Really? Is that how you build suspense? On a separate note—“hitch” doesn’t even make semantic sense used in this way. I think some use it for onomatopoetic reasons—it sounds like someone catching his/her breath—but that’s not actually what it means. “Hitch” is a transitive verb, meaning there must be an object that the hitching is being done to. “Breath” does not qualify because it is being used as a subject in the above sentence.
To summarize: Fifty Shades of Grey has a couple redeeming qualities, but its main agenda, as with all romance novels, is to deliver a fantasy. Some women have said that the book is working wonders for their marriages, spicing up a relationship that has become a little stale. That’s great, but I have a hard time believing you can truly separate the physical fantasy from the emotional one. It’s too easy to compare the man you have with Christian Grey.
To be honest, I’m still tempted to read the next two books. My friend told me that eventually they get married and have kids. I’d love to know how that happens. But I also know that I’m not doing myself or my husband any favors by continuing to read something that puts unrealistic expectations in my mind. I already have enough of those. I want to read books that teach me how to keep loving when the liking gets tough, to deal with the banal details of life and appreciate small everyday blessings. I want to read about characters who are imperfect and grapple with the human condition.
I want to know that I’m a better person because I read a book, and I’m not convinced that reading Fifty Shades has benefited me in any way.