Fifty Shades of Grey is Fifty Shades of Amateur Storytelling

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.

9 responses to “Fifty Shades of Grey is Fifty Shades of Amateur Storytelling”

  1. popup82 says:

    I feel like you read my mind and watched me while I read this book. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Spot on.

  2. courtney_bolton says:

    Great review! I’ve seen the books in the bookstore and was curious, but after reading this review, I won’t waste my money on one, much less all three. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Suhey says:

    Great review Jessica! This novel isn’t that great, I thought it would be better but like you said reader at some point knows what is going to happen! More of the same in severals occasion! I love reading is one of my favorites things! Thanks!

  4. Lisa says:

    Im an avid reader. I dont totally disagree w.ur review but I do think the women reading the series (myself included) are smart enuf 2 know that in reality a relationshiip like the characters share would be highly disfunctional! However, its not real life! I found her inner voices 2 be very entertaining & think, if done right for the movie, will make it quite enjoyable! Christians childhood trauma is revealed more in the sequals and that is part of what keeps u reading them. I agree there is some repetiton & admittedly, I skim over some of the numerous sex scenes. but all in all i find myself already into the 3rd book after receiving the series for mothers day. Sometimes u just need an light, easy read!
    I dont expect everyone 2 like them! Everybody has different tastes but they’ve been so popular for a reason.

  5. Interesting says:

    I am almost through the first novel, and can’t wait to read the other two. It’s interesting to see the differing opinions, and perhaps I find it easier than some to suspend disbelief because I am finding it to be quite an enjoyable read. It probably doesn’t hurt that even though I am near 50, I was once a 20-year-old, naive, childlike virgin that could easily have been Anastasia Steele!!

  6. Suzie says:

    I have heard a lot of people say they liked the book, but after reading this review, I will not waste my money on it. I do not like romance or erotica and this sounds like it would bore me to tears. Thank you for the excellent review!

  7. mj says:

    Spot on with the review. It’s a bad sign when I start to skip the sex scenes 150 pages into the book because the lack luster description boars me.

    I did not mind that Ana was a virgin. What I did mind was the fact that she never seemed to have heard of sex, read a book about sex or even talked to anyone about sex. Apparently there were also no films in Portland that had anything to do with sex. Everything was a complete and utter surprise to her. I find that very strange especially after meeting her much married mother and her beloved step father. And what’s up with the “Inner goddess” No one has an inner goddess except divorced mothers of 3 from Encino.

    Let’s be honest, Christian was callow and silly. At 26 no man knows much about sex beyond the end of his penis and it would be extremely unlikely for him to have such clearly defined sophisticated tastes. Did I mention the sex was boring? Christian needs 10 years on his age and a decade of investigation and experimentation to really be where the author tries to place him. He would barely begin to be working out that fact that he was with an actual woman with feelings at his age. Just a few raw numbers: Christian met Elena when he was 15. He was with her 6 years which makes him 21. He made me laugh when he told Ana that ended a long time ago. Only someone 26 could think 5 years was a long time. In 5 years he’s racked up 17 women we know of for sure because he says so. Lotta a women for 5 years for anyone that isn’t a frat boy. And while refining his BDSM game he learned to pilot a glider, fly a helicopter, choose wine, choose art, appreciate music and build an empire. Thank heaven no one in this book has a clue about food. That would have just been too much. I jammed a lot into the years before I was 30, but he’s got me beat.

    At any rate, I can’t bear to read the next one. I do want to know what Christian’s big trauma is that he holds so closely. By 4 he was in the child welfare system and adopted. Are we pretending he remembers what happened to him prior to that? He and Dexter. Vivid memories that most of us couldn’t lay hold of if threatened.

    At any rate, excellent review. thank you for that.

  8. Jessica says:

    I wish I had read this blog earlier. I too heard all the hype from my friends and bought the trilogy. I couldn’t make it past chapter 15. I’ll stick with my Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson. The old classics 🙂

  9. Glambert! says:

    I loved the book so much. I thought it wa one of the best books ever.

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