I usually don’t read novels that “everybody is talking about” because I’ve been disappointed in the past by flash in the pan authors. However, virtually everyone I know has been reading the Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James, and they have been asking for my opinion on it. So I bought Fifty Shades of Grey and here I am with a review.
The premise of the first novel in the trilogy is an interesting one for its genre. A billionaire entrepreneur, Christian Grey, pursues an unusual relationship with a naive recent college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and he introduces her to the dark world of dominant and submissive sex. The media has termed the Fifty Shades trilogy as mommy porn and the trilogy is apparently credited with rejuvenating the erotic spark in relationships everywhere. A trilogy of novels getting so much attention and selling at such a ridiculous rate did intrigue me, which is why I agreed to review it, even though I don’t typically read the erotica genre. I have tested the erotica genre before though, and found the novels to be so poorly written that I found no entertainment value in them whatsoever. Since this trilogy blew up with such stunning sales and everybody has been talking about it, I expected E. L. James to be the Jane Austen of the erotica world.
I found the first novel in the trilogy mostly dull and repetitive mixed with a few bright spots of promise for growth in future E. L. James novels. Fifty Shades of Grey was the first novel I’ve read that was completely written in first person, present tense narrative voice (the vast majority of novels are written in past tense). I believe this was the author’s attempt at keeping the reader in the moment, wrapped up within the story as a participant, rather than watching it unfold from the outside. Instead, it came off as watching people repeatedly engage in cybersex. I never fully adjusted to the first person, present tense narrative voice and found it distracting because my brain kept trying to translate it into more traditional past tense narrative voice.
Anastasia Steele being the main character meant I never got a chance to escape her thoughts. She’s supposed to be freshly graduated from college but her naivete, attitude, speech and experience with life don’t match her age. Her dialogue reads awkwardly and often ends up sounding stuffy and middle-aged, while her internal monologues often revert to sounding like a 14-year-old girl. I never saw her interests, philosophies, or a spine that doesn’t come out of her mouth sounding like a brat throwing a tantrum. There were times that I wanted to smack Ana and yell at her to grow up more than once, which doesn’t bode well when readers need to like at least one character in a novel to stay interested in the story. I didn’t find Ana to be believable for her age, although it appears her virginal innocence was the author’s way of explaining the dominate and submissive world to the reader. We were introduced to it through her eyes. I understand it in terms of a literature tool, but as a reader, I found the character underdeveloped and dull.
One thing that bothered me quite a bit about this novel is how women everywhere seem to fantasize about Christian Grey. At first blush, the money and grand gestures to win over Ana appear beautiful and romantic, but I found his character to be entirely too psychologically damaged. Perhaps I’m entirely too wary about men after going through an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive relationship but I found myself thinking Christian needed intensive psychological care, not a Red Room of Pain. Ana spent the entire novel trying to fix him and I never saw any other aspect of her life besides her quest to get him to change himself and to really love her. It’s worrisome to me that women reading these novels don’t seem to see the utter dysfunction of this relationship. As much as it concerns me that women are fantasizing about such a psychologically damaged man, it does, ironically, make him the most well-developed and realistic character in the novel aside from the masochistic sexual lifestyle. I believe him as a flesh and blood person, whereas I was always aware that Ana was a character in a novel.
E. L. James’ writing style is best described as fan fiction with a lucky publishing deal. I have heard it reported in the media that Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction, which does explain a lot about the content. Granted, it’s definitely not the worst piece of writing I’ve ever encountered but I repeatedly found myself wondering why the publisher didn’t ask for edits before they put their name on the trilogy. For example, the author relied on repeating several phrases to the point of annoyance and distracting me from the story. Ghost of a smile, hitched breath, there and oh crap to name a few rather overused phrases. Fiction writers are generally encouraged to avoid repetitive phrasing because readers get bored when they aren’t being surprised. The sex scenes in this novel read to me as repetitive as well, with mechanical writing, awkward sentence structure and not enough emotional or physical description. Novels like these are intended to arouse and awaken personal sexual fantasies but I was very disappointed in that regard because I was not inspired like I had hoped. I was too distracted by the lack of quality in the writing and how Ana’s low self-esteem opened herself to a potential emotionally abusive relationship. There is a distinct difference between engaging in a consensual dom/sub lifestyle and engaging in it with a psychologically damaged man who admittedly needs to inflict pain on women to make his terrible upbringing feel better.
Christian’s mysterious upbringing that makes him need to inflict pain on women, by the way, is never fully explained by the end of the first novel. Despite it being a trilogy, I never really felt like it was a complete novel. I suspect much of it could have been edited and restructured to combine all three novels into a much tighter, better evolved single novel rather than reading a lot of unnecessary scenes to get to the meat of the story. I was never surprised by any plot twists. I found the story structure to be rather predictable, which is probably why it took so long to read it. I was bored, quite honestly. A reader should not be able to predict each move the main character is going to make, yet that’s exactly what happened as I read it. The mark of a lasting novel is the wow factor. I don’t feel a wow factor with Fifty Shades of Grey.
However, the good points about this trilogy are the discussions women are having because of it. Harry Potter got kids interested in reading again. I see Fifty Shades having the same affect on otherwise busy, uninterested women and their exposure to books. I’ve seen a lot of women beginning to look into other books now that their literacy appetites have been whetted. That is a good thing. Whatever it takes to get more people interested in books is fine by me. I just wish Fifty Shades of Grey lived up to the hype.