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Last month, I wrote a post based on my perceptions of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Several people who have read the Twilight series have told me to give it a chance. I haven’t gotten past the first page, but after discussing the Fifty Shades trilogy with friends and acquaintances, I discovered that it was a hot topic discussion with several people I know. So, I sucked it up, went to Target, grabbed a copy of the first book (eh, it was only $12, so I didn’t feel too bad about the purchase) and read it–I didn’t devour it the way some readers did, but I did do my duty to gain an informed opinion.

The plot is hardly a secret anymore, but just in case you missed it, here’s a brief rundown. The trilogy’s narrator is Anastasia Steele (or, Ana, as she most often calls herself). She’s a klutzy, shy college senior in her last few weeks of college in Vancouver, Washington. Her roommate, Kate, writes for the college’s newspaper, but due to a well-timed illness is unable to complete her scheduled interview with Christian Grey, a young business mogul/billionaire/humanitarian/college benefactor. Ana steps in to cover for her friend, and so she heads for Christian’s office to complete the interview. She literally stumbles into his office, and the gorgeous, enigmatic Christian Grey helps her gain her composure and sits through Ana’s interview. Reading this interview scene caused this reader to cringe (I’ll admit, I cringed through much of this book for various reasons!) as Ana bumbles awkwardly through Kate’s interview questions. Ana explains that Christian is pretty hot. OK, that’s an understatement. She can barely handle being in his presence, so struck is she by his magnetic good looks. His hotness is a recurring motif throughout the trilogy, so be prepared for lots of descriptions of his hair, chest and–manhood.

For reasons I couldn’t understand, Christian Grey is quite taken by Ana, so much so that he arranges to see her again and ends up making out with her in a very unexpected and out-of-the-blue fashion. Soon, he is showing up wherever she is; at her workplace, a bar, her apartment. It’s a little creepy and stalker-esque, and Ana seems both surprised and flattered by the attention. When they finally discuss their mutual attraction, Grey reveals that he has never had a romantic relationship of the traditional sort; he explains that he partakes in sexual relationships where the women are deemed Submissives and he is the Dominant–he shows Anastasia his “playroom” where he carries out these scenarios. Ana dubs it the “Red Room of Pain,” as it’s decked out with a multitude of sex toys and–weapons, for lack of a better term. As he introduces Ana to his lifestyle, he also woos her with expensive dinners, rides in his private helicopter and the gift of a new car. Despite her reservations, the virginal Ana embarks on a relationship with Christian, comes to realize her own sexuality, and learns more about Christian’s dark past.

There are three books in this series; I am finishing the third one now, so I’ll get to the rest of the story in a future post. The writing style is similar in all three; Ana tells her story in the present tense and relates her internal monologue and unvoiced thoughts in her narrative. It gets quite tedious; she never ceases to be surprised or shocked by Christian’s sexual prowess, and lets the reader know she’s taken aback by gasping often or thinking holy cow or oh my. E L James’ prose is juvenile at best; Ana is supposed to be only 22, so it does fit her character, but Christian Grey talks like no other 27 year-old American I’ve ever met. His speech is riddled with clichés and repetition as well; he tells Ana over and over that he finds her “intoxicating” and “fascinating.” He most often addresses her as “Miss Steele,” while she calls him “Mr. Grey.” Once again, twenty-somethings on the United States’ West Coast rarely use such titles.

The sex is steamy and somewhat gratuitous; I couldn’t read the book for too long at any given time; the story was so drenched in sex, the plot was hard to find. But, I don’t think most people are reading this series for the plot. Since I first heard about the series, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why women are so fascinated by it and by Christian Grey. He hardly seems like an ideal romantic figure in my mind. Where some readers view him as mysterious and charming, I see him as controlling and manipulative. After reading most of the series and discussing it with others, I think I may have nailed down the main reasons why this voyeuristic fantasy is still topping the New York Times bestseller list:

1. The Cinderella Factor: Christian Grey embodies the fantasy of a rich, mysterious man who appears out of nowhere, sweeps the ordinary heroine off her feet, showers her with gifts and compliments and tells her she is perfect in every way. His terms of endearment aren’t exactly original, but they do hit right at the desire to be idolized.

2. Chicks dig a bad boy: Christian is a man of mystery who harbors dark secrets. He’s incredibly hot, incredibly rich, and incredibly powerful. His unusual sexual preferences and tortured, damaged soul make for a guy who’s risky but also reformable. Since Ana makes a great impact on him, she’s able to reach him in a way no other woman has, which speaks to another fantasy of women who want to be the one to change the bad boy.

3. It’s taboo: Entertainment makes for safe, vicarious fantasy. In this series, the reader can experience a less mainstream form of sexual gratification that is edgy, painful, and somewhat scary. Author Janet Burroway writes, “Literature offers feelings for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve…” (Writing Fiction, p. 74). While calling Fifty Shades literature is a bit of a stretch, it allows the layperson to vicariously experience an alternative sexual lifestyle without experiencing the risks.

4. All the cool kids are reading it: Let’s be honest–this book is everywhere and everyone’s talking about it. One of the women I spoke with about this book brought up how quickly it gets passed around in social circles when one member reads the book then informs the rest of the group about it; it makes the rounds quickly and prompts lots of discussion. I read it primarily to be in-the-know.

5. Oh, right–the sex: Yes, yes, there’s lots of sex. Based on what I’ve read, the series is amping up quite a few sex lives; as one woman told me, “It just makes you really want to have sex.” I’ve heard no complaints from the male set.

It’s not great literature, and not even really a great story. The main problem is that E L James commits the cardinal sin of creative writing: she tells everything and shows hardly anything. Her awkward prose spells out every thought and emotion Ana has, and the rest of the characters and locations are one-dimensional and can be taken at face value. There’s not much here that’s multifaceted or nuanced; the reader can take it at face value without analysis. I’ll allow that anyone who’s reading this probably isn’t looking for great character development or layered plot; I certainly wasn’t expecting that when I picked it up. It all depends on what you’re looking for; I read this mostly to understand what everyone was talking about. Now I guess I have to read Twilight.

My rating: It was ok (2 out of 5 stars)

Acknowledgments: I read the Vintage edition of Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, copyright 2011. ISBN 978-0345803481

Janet Burroway quote taken from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Sixth Edition) by Janet Burroway, Longman/Pearson Education, copyright 2003. ISBN 0-321-11795-6