Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

written by David Steffen

The book Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has been mentioned in many many different media sources over the last year, to a much larger degree than most books get attention. Now, this happens periodically with books that gain some mainstream appeal, like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I didn’t really know what kind of book this particular one was until I saw a Saturday Night Live fake Mother’s Day commercial, wherein various families come home to give their mom breakfast in bed or other traditional gifts, and find her in bed, in the bathtub, or in the laundry room masturbating, causing much embarrassment on everyone’s part. Ah, erotica.

Now, it’s not news to me that erotica is popular. Any book store, or even your average department store, has a huge rack of romance and erotica, easily picked out by the bare-chested musclemen on the covers. What did surprise me, though, is that any particular erotica book has become so popular to become visible enough that it makes a good topic for a fake SNL commercial. Your average fan of erotica reads voraciously, and so as a result there are so many different books on the shelves, seemingly rotating by the week, that it’s very unusual for a single one to become so popular. So I decided to read it to find out what all the hype is about. I have not read an erotica novel before. I have read plenty of novels and short stories with erotic scenes or erotic themes, but never one where the primary purpose is to get the reader hot and bothered. And… realize I am not the target audience for this book. I am judging it based on my tastes which are not the same as other people’s tastes. I also realize that this doesn’t fall under Diabolical Plots‘ usual jurisdiction–but I reserve the right to move the boundary from time to time, especially for a book with so much hype.

Okay then, on we go:
The protagonist of the story is Anastasia Steele, and shortly after the story begins she travels from Portland to Seattle to interview Christian Grey, a CEO who will be speaking at her college commencement in the near future. Ana (as she prefers to be called) is not only a virgin, but she had never felt sexually attracted to anyone in her life, until she met Christian. Christian is a dazzlingly attractive well-endowed billionaire who is very sexually experienced but who is only interested in relationships with himself as the Dominant member, with lots of bondage and sadomasochism. There is an immediate attraction between the two of them, and they begin a trial relationship which tests the boundaries between what he demands of her and what she is comfortable giving. The seeking of this balance is the primary arc of the book, and the source of most of the tension (there are some sideplots but that’s the core of it all).

When considering a piece of fiction, I think one of the more meaningful measures of value is the question “Was it effective?” where the definition of “effective” depends on what effect one expects from a particular genre. With erotica, I’d consider it effective if I was turned on by it, which probably makes it almost as difficult as judging comedy, because each person’s tastes will be different. I will say that it was somewhat effective for me. There are early “vanilla” sex scenes in which he eases her into sexual experiences without yet introducing her into bondage and sadomasochism. Despite the annoying narration style (about which I will elaborate shortly) I found these initial scenes effective. But the book as a whole after that point, didn’t work for me all that well for me. This could just be a matter of what I find sexy compared to other people. I don’t understand the pain equates with pleasure concept, and I cringe at the idea of intentionally inflicting pain on others. As the book went on, in my imagination Ana became less and less of a person because of the narration style and because I was skeptical that anyone would make the choices she made, and so instead of feeling like a story about real people really having sex, it became much harder to take it seriously.

Okay, so I mentioned annoying narration. Allow me to elaborate. For one thing, this book has a large amount of internal monologue. Probably about half of it is just expressions of surprise like “holy crap” and stronger expletives. Which gets really old when it happens every few paragraphs. I can at least understand it when it’s used in regard to major events like losing her virginity, and starting to experience bondage. But she uses it in the strangest places, like “Holy crap. Christian Grey just emailed a winky face to me.” This after she’s had sex with him a bunch of times–why is that so shocking at that point? At another point he asks “Sugar?” while making her tea, and she thinks he’s calling her by a pet name, rather than asking what she’d like in her tea. Which… makes me really wonder what’s wrong with her.

But the aspect of the narration that was strangest and just distracting was the way she split her inner thoughts into three distinct characters. There were parts that had no attribution, and then parts that were attributed to her subconscious and others attributed to her inner goddess. Judging by the nature of these different characters’ actions, I guess that the inner goddess is her long-dormant libido, and her subconscious is her somewhat repressed sarcastic side? Anyway, the inner goddess gets lots of descriptive play, putting on cheerleading uniform to cheer on some new sex position or toy, doing Olympic flip routines to celebrate, while the subconscious generally spends her time making sarcastic comments and giving skeptical looks through wing-shaped glasses. During some scenes these two are described as arguing with each other, and generally do everything that Ana is too afraid to do. Okay, I understand that everyone’s personality has different aspects that each become stronger during different settings, with different people, and so on. And I think that this is meant to convey that. But it was so over the top for me that I just found it really distracting from everything else in the story–at times I wondered if she’s actually supposed to be schizophrenic.

One of the biggest problems I had in the story was that an adult virgin, who is aware that she has no experience with any kind of sex, would so easily consent to a sexual relationship based around bondage and sadomasochism without even experiencing any other kind of sex first. At several points she is not sure if some of his strong behavior is what every man does or if it is just him, and any amount of experience would help her learn that.

One thing that I thought that the story did VERY well was flirty emails between Ana and Christian. Throughout the whole book I looked forward to the two characters parting ways so that they could exchange some more emails. The change in subject lines as they reply back and forth, snarky answers, misdirection, flirty comments. I liked that a lot, and I never got tired of it.

My wife also read the book about the same time that I did in order to find out what the hype is about, and her opinions were similar to mine in most respects. So not every member of the female sex is a huge fan. And, no, she didn’t just agree with me to humor me–she has no compunctions about disagreeing with me when she thinks I’m wrong. We had quite a lot of fun pointing out things about the book that we found strange.

SPOILER

This isn’t a book review in which I’m too worried about spoilers, since it’s much more about the experience than any surprise plot elements, or anything like that. But endings are important, and so if you don’t want to find out how it ends, skip past this section. Christian makes it very clear very early on that he enjoys causing her pain. From the very beginning she does not understand that, and it frightens her. She allows him to cause some pain in the story, and finds that she even likes it, but it still troubles her that Christian wants to do it not so that she will like it, but to punish her. Even though he wants to punish her when she disobeys him, he has allowed her to draw where the limits are in this punishment. They discuss this as the story goes on, but they make little progress in the discussion because of their different points of view. But near the end of the story the argument comes to a head, and she tells him that she wants to find out how extreme the punishment will get, and she tells him to just let loose. He does, beating her with a strap with all the force he can muster, and she ends up breaking it off with him as a result. I can’t say that I understand why she does it. Well, I mean, I can understand why you would break up with someone who wants to beat the hell out of you, but he had been upfront about that from the very beginning. He only strapped her like that when she demanded that he do so, and then she breaks up with him over it. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. In any case, the story ends with them parting ways, and her feeling like her life is falling apart. There more books in the series, so presumably their paths do cross again in the near future.

END SPOILER

All in all, I don’t regret reading it. I like to have an idea what appeals to the masses. I like to criticize popular fiction, and when I do so I want my opinion to be based on the source material not just hearsay. Some of the earlier sex scenes were reasonably good, and the flirty emails were consistently entertaining and a highlight for me. But overall I was glad I got it from the library instead of buying it. I wouldn’t personally recommend the book to anyone because of the distracting narrative style and the fact that I just didn’t find it all that exciting for most of the book. But, it sold enough copies to become a New York Times bestseller, so in the words of Levar Burton, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David also writes articles here and edits the fiction. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on Twitter for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

One thought on “Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey”

  1. As a friend of the site, I just want to say your review was bang on the money. I really wanted to review or blog about the whole phenomenon, but instead I decided to use my criticisms, and those of other writers and reviewers, to satirize the book. The results, if anyone wants to have a good laugh at Fifty shades’ expense, is available at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008QNE5S6/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B008QNE5S6&linkCode=as2&tag=modernistdepot-20

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