Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James

May 9, 2012
Hopping on the bandwagon.

And now for some words of wisdom from my compatriots in Romancevilleland, Melissa and Delia.

Since it seems that every romance reviewer has an obligation to chime in on 50 Shades of Grey, and as SidneyKay doesn't read contemporary, we offered to provide a guest review for her. And, yes, for those two or three who haven't read the book, here be spoilers!

Delia: I read very few contemporary romance novels, and I usually hate jumping on any bandwagon that meanders by, but there has been just too much said about this novel to not pique my interest on what the commotion was all about. The factors that influenced me to read the book were 1) the effect of a blatantly BDSM book on the romance community at large; and 2) why so many mainstream (non-romance) readers are making this such a popular book.

In the first arena, I have to admit that I don't really relish BDSM in general, but I don't have anything against reading about it. Anyone can tell you, I am not easy to control, so I don’t find it all that alluring. The way I see BDSM, it's not just about the control the dominant has over the submissive, but also the power the submissive has over the dominant. I'm not going to get into that whole argument here. I know some didn't like the book because at some point Christian causes real (not pretend) pain to Ana, and she doesn't mind. That was not, to me the problem. I am realistic enough to think that if characters (male and female) are into that, well, that's the way it is, and pain is acceptable. After all, that's where romance has been heading for a while. We all thought we'd get to it with Hart Mackenzie in The Duke’s Perfect Wife, but Jennifer Ashley kind of wimped out. No, what drove me crazy was how poorly written the whole book was. Come on, ANOTHER version of the contract? Can't she just be reading the changed parts? Why do we have to rehash the whole thing yet again? I thought I was back in college reading business law! And yes, I skipped over sections of repeat contract. Heck, I skipped over most of the contract the first time. It became just wasted space to fill out the book. ("See? Just cut and paste and change a few words and add a bit of dialog." I don't think the movie that, yes, will be done, will repeat the contract several times.) The only question in the whole book is whether Ana will continue to negotiate titillating contracts until they reach the signing point.

The book is filled with "Really?" moments. It started out hitting me over the head with the oh-so-subtle Ana falling at Christian's feet when they first meet. Really? Her last name is “Steele?” Really? Really? Foreshadowing and symbolism and THIS is all you can do? Her family is OK with some rich guy buying her a new car? Really? My father's, heck, my husband's first reaction would be "what's he trying to buy?" She can take off huge chunks of time during finals? Really? Her family and friends are cardboard stand-ins. People to reflect the main characters, but no one ever questions her as to what she is doing. And BTW, Christian smirks constantly! Smirking is not a habit I associate with romance heroes. I read smirk and I think "slap his smart-ass face."

And there is the second point. Is this romance? I know the huge portion of those who read believe, yes, it is. They are the ones who always thought romance was nothing but soft-core porn for women. Good romance novels offer strong character development, well-constructed plots, finely researched backgrounds and continuity within series. There is symbolism to provide meaning, foreshadowing to provide suspense, and the opportunity to enjoy a good story or to discuss the finer aspects of motivation. There is emotion and the prospect that, even though things can get rough, a happy continuation is possible. (Note: Not so much as a happy ending, but that life will continue for the main characters better than before.) I haven't read erotica, but I would hope that the emotional aspect that hallmarks the various genres of romance I have read still exists there, too. So the difference between romance and porn is the emotional journey versus physical gratification. I think 50 Shades is trying to add emotion into its journey. Ana is basically a blank slate of sexual experience, previously holding herself back, and Christian is freeing her by binding her (bam! there's symbolism, hitting me over the head again). But it's a stretch for me. While we are told that she is smart, she's a wide-eyed blow-up doll. For all of her thinking and musing on Christian and his needs, her head is full of air. Finally, toward the end, we got a hint of why Christian is the way he is (spoiler: He was abused! Surprise!), although we get no details. That's the next $10, like the old cliff-hanger movies on Saturday mornings.

So, is it romance? I think it's what people who don't read romance think romance is: poorly written tripe with a side of hot sex. I think romance readers who think this is romance think this is the next big thing and want to be riding the wave. I think I'll pass on the next two volumes and wait until the surf has cleared out all the debris to offer a better written version of the next thing.

Melissa: I decided to try out this book since I am an active romance reader and writer and some of my own writing has been labeled with the erotic brush by SidneyKay. I will even admit to being a major Twi-hard to show that I am willing to enjoy a good story though it is poorly written. This book is not just badly written, but there is no story, just uncomfortable situations and orgasms. Instead of character development or growth, we have stalker boy Christian altering contracts repeatedly with TSTL Ana, who went from virgin to BDSM multi-orgasmic girl in seconds.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a prude in any fashion. I don’t mind erotica, bondage, domination in the bedroom, and spanking. But this story loses erotic appeal when Christian demands Ana’s submission not only in the bedroom but in everything, including him monitoring her eating habits and essentially stalking her. After Ana tumbles into his office, ala Bella, he randomly shows up at her workplace to buy various bondage materials. This is the first of many uncomfortable scenes, when Ana should be calling the police rather than being flattered at the awkward attention. And the most distressing aspect of this book is Ana’s confusion and the discussions over her physical pain. How is this erotic? She was a virgin. How warped is her perception of sex after this experience?

Each of us is allowed our own opinion and for me, I cannot understand the appeal of this book. The most disturbing aspect of this phenomenon is statements by women that this book has improved their sex lives. I’m all for erotica, which I agree can add some spark to our lives, but this book is not erotic. What does it say about society that women are seeking to be submissive in their everyday lives much like the heroine in this book? Last time I checked that behavior was deemed abusive.

Thank you Melissa and Delia for the look into a book I strongly suspect I will not be reading.  I'm thinkin' maybe a low grade on this one.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking one for the team! When the buzz about this book first began, I looked at the description, shook my head, and said "not for me". I don't care that other people like S&M but I'm not interested, not even in a vicarious way.

The buzz continued to build however, and I began to reconsider. S&M plays a part in Sarah Monette's Mirador series and I love those books (while hating the S&M scenes). Granted the S&M in those books was just part of one character's story--there was a much larger picture that drew me in.

All S&M though, poor writing, and no real story? I'll think I'll pass--thanks for the heads up!


SidneyKay said...

I think it's sad that this is what is pointed at as an example of a "romance book." I've not read it, however, from what I'm hearing my issue with it would be the writing not the theme.

France said...

Outstanding fantasy book. To criticize the book or writing means you are taking it too seriously. It's fiction...not nonfiction. Lighten up and go enjoy life. This book provided a temporary fantasy for entertainment purposes only and it was successful at that. Excellent book if you are not uptight and understand the difference between real life and fiction.

Delia said...

Hmmm... France, I know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. What I object to is BAD WRITING! No problem with fantasy, no problem with characters doing things I wouldn't do. But make the characters believable, not cardboard cut-outs.