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Fifty Shades of Reviewing – 50 Shades of Grey: A Review

September 2, 2012

Somewhat, as it seems, behind the times, at long last I’ve gotten round to reviewing E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Now, normally when a book starts to generate a lot of media hype, I’m the first one there buying up the whole series (George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, or the Twilight saga) and getting stuck in. With this, however, I resisted. For a long, long time. Not long after Fifty Shades mania hit, I read a couple of reviews of the book on Goodreads that really put me off. Words such as “godawful” were mentioned. Then, a number of my older (not like OLDER older, but the best part of 20 years older than me older) female acquaintances started reading it and discussing it as though it were a real scandal, saying their husbands didn’t know what had got into them. I was repulsed and vowed at that point that I was going to avoid the trilogy at all costs. I shut my ears to the revolting praise I was hearing and seeing all around me and refused to engage in any of the hype. Not even the twitter feed “50 Sheds of Grey”.

But then, very maturely, after a dinner with a friend who is also a bit of a book nerd (and who had read the Fifty Shades Trilogy, in secret, on her kindle while on holiday…), I realised that it isn’t really the done thing to condemn something without first having experienced it and seen what all the fuss is about, and so I succumbed and bought the first installment on a Buy One, Get One Half Price deal in Waterstones with the intention of reading it while on holiday.

Read it I did, and gosh is this a novel I hated to love. I was acutely aware of how atrocious it was, and I didn’t feel any sympathy/empathy/engagement with ANY of the characters, but something propelled me through those pages. God knows what, but something did, and now I’ve even gone out and bought the remaining installments (also on Buy One, Get One Half Price) so I can find out what happens next. Which means there’s a plot, of sorts, albeit thin. There is some progression and attempt at development, and it isn’t exactly just a number of sex scenes strung together with some flimsy dialogue as I’d heard prior to reading. Christian Gray is by far the most interesting character and the most developed (which is saying something – none of them are particularly developed). Even though I have no idea what he really looks like except that he’s got messy hair and his trousers always hang really nicely on his hips, he has some semblance of a personality. He’s mysterious and broody and his moods change like the flick of a lightswitch but underneath all that there’s something that just has to be loved. God I’m such a woman! Keeping his history from the reader, maintaining that enigmatic impression around him, is what keeps readers interested. Everyone loves a bad boy, someone with a few secrets they need to eke out, someone with very strict preferences who they’re certain that if they just show them enough love, they can change. If everything about Christian Gray had been laid out for the world to see in chapter one, then he wouldn’t have even a tiny proportion of the appeal that he seems to have.

By contrast, James’ female protagonist, Ana, is completely unappealing and unrealistic. A 22 year old American college graduate, by all accounts pretty attractive (even if she doesn’t realise it) who has previously had no interest in men, romance or sex? Are you kidding me? I’m sure such people do exist in cupboards somewhere, but they don’t get to be protagonists of novels. They aren’t interesting enough. And nor is Ana. In fact, James’ attempts to make her interesting just make her annoying. Her schizophrenically opposed “inner goddess” and “subconscious” drove me mental, as did Ana’s italicised internal asides. Some of the writing, not great in the first place, would have actually been more profound without the irritating internal comments destroying the mood. I would have preferred the narrative of any of the other characters (except perhaps Kate, who was equally annoying), but since Ana is what we have, I suppose Ana is what we are stuck with.

What Fifty Shades of Grey lacks most is originality. The plot is pretty linear and lacks dimension, with the only surprise coming at the end (I won’t spoil it…) when Ana shows she has more backbone than previously suspected. The language is dull – I mean, there’s plenty of innuendo but I can think of a thousand more inspired ways of describing things that are just as euphemistic as E.L. James’ choices. I thought people were drawing tenuous links when they commented on the Fifty Shades trilogy starting out as Twilight fan fiction, but the characters couldn’t be more directly lifted out of Stephanie Mawer’s books if E.L. James had given Christian a pair of fangs and got him to take a nice chunk out of Ana’s neck before deciding to hate Jose because he’s a werewolf.

What really concerns me about this novel is the reports that a lot of the “kinkier” content is supposedly the author’s own sexual fantasies made real on the page. This stuff is to all intents and purposes pretty tame in the world of erotic fiction. If this is what she fantasises about, then I feel a bit sorry for her…

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