Review: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

19 Jun

Oh man, time to get sex-ay! Before I got down and settled with this book, I broke open a box of Franzia, cued up “I Want to Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd, and pulled on my comfy sweats, the one with the hole along the ass crack. That’s just how the playaz roll, son.

Look, everything under the sun has already been said about “Fifty Shades of Grey” and at this point, anything I say will just be construed as dog-piling or jumping on the bandwagon. That said, I promised my sister I was going to read this book—and honestly almost any book that gets my sister reading gets a thumbs-up from me—and I wasn’t going to read it without blogging about it. I like to do a little book report after each one I read because if I just talked about it out loud to anyone who’ll listen, I’d probably get maced in the face. Anyway, there’s a little note on the copyright page that says, “The author published an earlier serialized version of this story online with different characters as ‘Masters of the Universe’ under the pseudonym Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” What that little handy note doesn’t tell you is the “different characters” it’s referring to are Bella Swan and Edward Cullen from Stephanie Myer’s “Twilight” series. This book started out as fanfic. As I’ve said many times in the past, I have no problem with fanfic (would fanfic based on “Fifty Shades of Grey” be hella meta?). Zero. I think of it as honoring the writer and the work itself. But when you’re making money from characters you directly lifted from another writer’s work and all you did was Find + Replace the names so your ass doesn’t get sued, that has to be… what’s the word I’m looking for… illegal? Is that the word? I don’t know, I like to defer to my good friend and ace reporter/actual lawyer Jane of Dear Author in matters like these. In fact, she does a spectacular side-by-side comparison of “Masters of the Universe” and the “Fifty Shades” books on her website. Check it out, if you haven’t already. No, seriously. Go now. Just don’t forget to come back and hang out with me. I’ll wait. *looks worriedly at watch*

Welcome back! With all of that preliminary stuff out of the way, let us dive into the literal fuckfest that is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The Plot as I Understood it Isabella Swan Anastasia Steele is a bumbling, clumsy, introverted college girl who lives in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, Oregon) and has close relationships with her dad, Charlie Ray, a mother who lives far away with her new husband, and a best friend called Jessica Alice Rosalie Katherine. Anastasia loves to drink tea and read books by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Thomas Hardy; she calls the female protagonists of these books her “literary heroines.” (You know she probably loved “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre,” right?) Her more outgoing, fun-loving friend Katherine lands an interview with the elusive, mysterious, young billionaire Edward Cullen Christian Grey for the school paper, but passes off the interview to Anastasia because she comes down with a very bad case of an inconveniently convenient flu. Okay… HOLD UP. You, a future journalist, land a highly-coveted interview with one of the richest men in the country and because you’re feeling a little sick, pass it off to your neurotic, socially maladjusted, misanthropic roommate with, admittedly, no journalism background/experience? That’s like Christiane Amanpour getting a little stomachache and sending her maid in her stead to interview Joseph Kony or something. What kind of a future journalist are you? Amanpour dodged bullets and bombs just to get a story, damn it! END RANT. Where was I? Anastasia goes to Seattle to see Christian Grey in her best frumpy suit, notes cynically that his admin staff seems to be comprised of tall, blond, beautiful fembots, and literally falls into his office, sprawling herself at his feet. Christian Grey, young and ridiculously good-looking (I was picturing Chris Evans, but my sister prefers Ian Somerhalder) is instantly entranced by this willowy, dark-haired, bumbling nymph and finds himself bemused that he doesn’t automatically boot her out on her ass when she blurts things out like, “Are you gay?” like a little girl with Tourette’s. Christian is charmed by Anastasia’s verbal diarrhea, ability to trip on her own feet like a mermaid who had just gotten legs five minutes ago, and tendency to argue with him for no reason at all. He is flabbergasted–who is this strange creature and how may I acquire her and stick her in a mason jar for me to observe at my own leisure for all time?– and… aroused.

And what does Anastasia do? She’s flattered by his attention, of course, but he couldn’t possibly be interested in her. She’s plain! And she doesn’t wear any makeup! And she works in a hipster hardware store! And now here’s Edward Christian showing up at the very hardware store that employs her and looking for… things to tie stuff down. Interesting. And he wants to fly her to Seattle for a dinner date in his helicopter! Oh and he buys her a NEW car for her graduation present! Oh and here’s a Blackberry and a Macbook so the two of them can communicate non-stop via text messages and emails! And oooh! An entire wardrobe of really expensive, high-quality clothes! And all Anastasia has to do is sign a little paper that says she will LITERALLY be Christian Grey’s chewtoy and/or Real Live Girl version of My Little Pony and Christian Grey will be her master, doling out spankings like it’s Christmas morning and spankings = candy canes. Anastasia chews her lip pensively (she does this maybe fifty times a day–I’m surprised her lower lip isn’t a chewed-up, bloody mess by the end of the book) and frets, literally wringing her hands and thinking things like, Oh, but I’m a feminist and if I become his submissive and let him buy me stuff in return, that would literally make me a whore, therefore negating the whole feminist bit. And Oh, but he’s so hot and so good-looking and I really want to bone him but I don’t want to be another slut in his long line of sluts (fifteen at last count?). Meanwhile, Christian makes it clear to her that he’s not the “boyfriend type” because he’s “fifty shades of fucked up” and really enjoys punishing women. Umm… run, Anastasia. Instead of scaring the crap out of our plucky, bright-eyed heroine, Anastasia falls gleefully on that sword and asks for more, with a side of “Yes, I’ll be your doormat.” I’m pretty sure “I can’t be your boyfriend—I’m all fucked up inside. I don’t know how to love” is a mating call for dumb-ass college girls looking to fall in love with someone they can “fix” because Daddy abandoned them as a child. Thus our modern-day Héloïse and Abelard (they write each other many, many texts and emails when they’re not together) hop onto the rocketship of crazy heading for a collision course with an asteroid called Kinky Fuckery, which causes collective America to sigh lustily and reach for their Hitachi Magic Wand.

The Heroine Anastasia Steele is an insecure, gawky, skinny girl who chews on her lower lip when she’s nervous and hides behind her hair. She slouches, mumbles a lot, rolls her eyes, and is an unhappy, little storm cloud. Sadly, she is crazy a mentally disturbed girl. The poor child hears voices which often confuse her and lead her to make terrible mistakes. The primary voice is an animated “inner goddess” who wears half-moon glasses and cajoles Anastasia into indulging her libido and letting go of her inhibitions. And then there’s her… subconscious? *record-scratch* According to Merriam-Webster:

sub·con·scious adj \ˌsəb-ˈkän-chəs, ˈsəb-\
Definition of SUBCONSCIOUS
1: existing in the mind but not immediately available to consciousness : affecting thought, feeling, and behavior without entering awareness [subconscious motives] [a subconscious reflex]
2: imperfectly conscious : partially but not fully aware [the persistence of subconscious dream activity for several minutes after waking—Psychological Abstracts]
—sub·con·scious·ly adverb
—sub·con·scious·ness noun

Maybe E.L. James is referring to Anastasia’s conscience, not her subconscious? Anyway, the conscience is supposed to be Anastasia’s voice of reason. This aspect of her personality is a disapproving schoolmarm who makes Anastasia feel bad and allows her to believe that any punishment she receives, she has brought upon her own head because she must be the kind of girl that would inspire a man like Christian Grey to treat her like a piece of meat. As the story progresses, the “conscience” is slowly phased out and the “inner goddess” becomes more of a dominant voice. The “inner goddess” revels in Anastasia’s masochism and pushes our heroine to explore her previously slumbering sexual side. Before Christian Grey, Anastasia is a drab, gloomy, young woman about to graduate college and move to Seattle to get a job in publishing (?) with a more gregarious, outgoing best friend. And that’s about it with our little heroine. We don’t learn anything about her outside of her big ball of crazy, wide-eyed crush on our titular “hero.” She has a mom who lives far away, a semi-close relationship with her step-dad, a couple of friends, doesn’t eat unless prodded, and oh, she likes to read old-school British literature. Does she like to write? Why does she want to get into publishing? What does she want to do in publishing, exactly? Does she want to become an editor? A literary agent? What happened to her biological father and how has his absence from her life affected her upbringing? Why does she keep borrowing her roommate’s dress and wear it over and over again without washing it first (I think I counted at least 4 occasions)? We don’t learn any of these things, but boy, does she ever get super-excited about Christian Grey. In short, Ana is the kind of girl who, upon meeting a new boy, forgets her friends and becomes completely obsessed.

The Hero Christian Grey might be a familiar figure to you if you’ve read as many historical romance novels as I have. If this were a Regency romance, he’d be a rake. A libertine. A man-slut. A playboy. At twenty-seven (twenty-eight?), he speaks like a middle-aged British woman (when he’s not talking like a phone sex operator as played by a frat boy) and is oddly courtly. He treats Anastasia like an incorrigible pet whom he wants to punish and fuck at the same time. While he insists loudly that he’s not the boyfriend type because he doesn’t believe in romantic love and sex and pain are all he can give, he stalks Anastasia and doesn’t let up until she’s a bigger ball of neuroses, insecurities, and anxiety. He speaks to her as though she were a disobedient child. He commands her to eat. He growls and says lovely, charming things like, “I’m going to fuck you” and its variant, “I want to fuck you.” The “fifty shades of fucked up” that surrounds Christian Grey like a heavy L.A. fog seems to stem from a bad childhood. SPOILER ALERT! (like, duh, why are the hurt little boys in Regency romances such man-sluts?) His mother, a drug addict who resorted to prostitution to finance her habit, died of an overdose when Christian was four years old and Christian sat with her dead body for four days. Since she was not a particularly good mother, she did not protect baby Christian from her pimp who liked to get drunk and molest baby Christian. Though he is adopted by a wealthy, benevolent family (just like the Cullens–the father’s name is Carrick—gah, Carrick = Carlisle) who love and indulge him, his bad memories continue to haunt him, thus he lashes out and starts acting like a punk, until he meets a Mrs. Robinson-type figure who straightens him out, becomes his mentor and later, his lover SPOILER END! I suppose it’s preferable that a man with such a dark, tormented past should grow up to be an emotionally crippled man with a sadistic streak who showers women with luxury and wealth in exchange for their abject submission… at least he didn’t become Dexter or anything. I can’t say he’s a bad man—he seems to be a good brother and son, donates a healthy amount of his billions to less fortunate people, and doesn’t torment homeless people in his down time—but he’s not a great guy, either. As soon as Anastasia (literally) stumbles into his office, he zooms in on her weakness—she might as well be wearing a placard over her head that says “victim”—and preys upon her naivete and insecurities. Anastasia plays with her hair, bites her lip—classic signs of anxiety. Christian recognizes a doormat when he sees one and goes for it. He hones in on the fact that she’s a clumsy, socially maladjusted, bumbling gloombug who’s almost 100% positively a virgin and his boink-o-meter goes through the roof. Does that make him an asshole? Yes, but apparently, being a sexy, wealthy asshole with mommy issues mixed with alpha-male posturing and growling makes up a delectable bowl of lady catnip. And he fucking loves Coldplay. Ugh.

Oh My Word! There’s nothing more romantic than co-dependence. Okay, I have to say something about the dialogue. “Laters, baby” is not sexy. I understand that it originates from an inside joke between Ana and Grey—Ana’s roommate is dating Grey’s brother and he says goodbye by saying, “Laters, baby” like a true douche—but it’s just not hot. But that’s not the worst of it. Until I realized that the author is British, I thought some of the dialogue sounded off and fake, like a English lit major who loves everything BBC America and Downton Abbey. Anastasia tends to say that she’s “keen” on something and “Shall I make us some tea?” or “I’ll make tea for us, shall I?” I also thought it was a little weird that everyone seems to be a tea drinker. Pacific Northwest people are COFFEE people and yet everyone is drinking tea like all of it is about to be dumped into Puget Sound. I wish the author had made more of an effort to make her characters sound American. I’m not all “America, Fuck Yeah!” but they’re supposed to be American, aren’t they? Yes, yes, America is a melting pot and everyone sounds different and who’s to say what “American” sounds like, but these aren’t British expatriates—they’re dyed-in-the-wool WHITE PEOPLE WHO ORIGINATED FROM THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST. Watch some Portlandia and listen to what those people sound like.

Speaking of “off,” I just wasn’t convinced about the romance developing between Ana and Grey. Ana had never really had a long-term relationship before and what she feels for Grey seems more “crush-like” than real love. She remarks upon how beautiful he is almost constantly, waxing poetic on his eyes and lips. And I’m not a big fan of “you brought it upon yourself,” but it seemed there is something in Ana that just triggers the alpha asshole in Grey. She taunts him often by calling him a control freak (even when he’s not acting like one), as though she had already firmly placed him in that role and wants him to act on it. Initially, she is freaked out by the whole thing (there’s a contract, FFS!), but gradually gives in to it. She doesn’t seem to have the courage of her own convictions—she can be talked into literally anything, just because she thinks Christian is so hot and wants badly to please him (he gives her a Blackberry, a Mac laptop, a new car, and a whole wardrobe of clothes and she takes them easily enough after some obligatory whingeing about how he doesn’t have to give her anything). If she were in junior high, she’d be putting up posters of him in her room and scrawling “Mrs. Christian Grey” all over her My Little Pony Trapper Keeper. As for Grey himself, there’s not much to say about him except he was most certainly directly plucked from Romance Novel Hero Casting Central. You know the type: brooding, wealthy, sensual, ridiculously good-looking, tormented by his past, a sucker for wide-eyed klutzes whom no one else think is special, and kind to animals and children. He’s not any kinkier than any of the heroes you might find in a Harlequin Blaze or a J.R. Ward novel. Sure, he’s got a special little room for his dirty fun times, but seeing as they don’t even really use it, it’s just for decoration. I suppose it still fits under the “Chekhov’s Gun” rule seeing as it plays a major role in the 3rd act, but I thought we would see more of it. I haven’t read the other books, but do these two get progressively kinkier?

Call me a perv, but for all the “kinky fuckery” everyone has been yammering about, I thought the sex in this book is surprisingly vanilla. Y’all want to read some awesome S&M-themed erotica? I recommend anything by Joey W. Hill (Natural Law is a good one) and Morgan Hawke. Joey W. Hill’s writing is also beautiful, evocative, and erotic to the bone, while Morgan Hawke? Whoa. These ladies know what they’re talking about. The erotic scenes are very sensually charged, doesn’t insult your intelligence, and pack an emotional as well as a mental wallop. If you’re looking for good S&M reads, it really can’t get any better than those two.

I’m reading the second book of the series, Fifty Shades Darker right now and I have to say that the “kinky fuckery” has yet to assert itself and I’m already getting tired of the break-up-make-up routine that these two go through. If Ana thinks Grey is a kinky fucker, she apparently has never read a romance novel in her entire life. I’ve found hotter sex scenes in the first fifty pages of any Harlequin Blaze novel (I love those things).

Verdict: Does this book rise above being a “Twilight” fanfic? No. Not only do Ana and Grey share many of Edward and Bella’s physical attributes and mannerisms, the song-and-dance of their entire relationship even mirrors that of Edward and Bella. I could probably make up a checklist and tick off the items that happened in the “Twilight” series as it happens in the “Fifty Shades” series… only without the vampires. And honestly? I kind of miss the pretty, sparkly bastards.

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6 Responses to “Review: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James”

  1. Vic June 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    I was thinking more along the lines of Alexander Skarsgaard but Ian Somerhalder would do the job!

  2. Jennie June 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Oh holy god, thank you… I appreciate a good honest review as much as a good book. And its rare when I find another person that has a similar reading history and has standards… You’re a girl after my own heart! Please keep them coming!

  3. Samantha Lui June 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    I hated this book. It was such a terrible example of a romantic relationship. There is nothing remotely sexy about Christian Grey. The way he speaks to Ana is so controlling an manipulative. Seriously, I thought Christian tracking her phone was an obvious cue enough…

    But no! Ana just wants to please him! And can I mention how annoying her inner goddess is?

    haha. Sorry for the rant…but I thought this book was terribly written. The characters aren’t even redeemable.

  4. Shiloh Walker June 19, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Haven’t read it so can’t comment…don’t intend to, so anyway…

    but damn, Bam. I miss seeing you around online!

  5. Rafael June 20, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    Wow. Just… wow. It might do Twilight fanfics justice based on the sub-par writing…

  6. Laurie July 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    Have you checked out this tumblr? Totally on point: http://50shadesofsuck.tumblr.com/