Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: "50 Shades of Grey"

I finally did it - I joined the ranks of millions of women who have read "50 Shades of Grey" by E L James.

(Image from Wikipedia)

I have to say, despite a myriad of problems, I enjoyed the book. As Kel said when I was describing it, it was like those off-brand M&Ms in trail mix - it really isn't that great, but it's chocolate, so it's still tasty and you still want to keep eating them. Not only did I keep turning the page, I am planning to read the other two books in the trilogy.

The book follows Anastasia Steele, a recent college graduate, and her relationship with multimillionaire CEO Christian Grey. But Christian is, by his own admission, 50 shades of fucked up. He has commitment issues and a love of controlling people, and that is played out in his enjoyment of BDSM. He is a dominant, and he wants Anastasia to be his new submissive. However, Christian's relationship with Ana is different from all of his others - he does things way outside of his sphere, like have normal sex with her and introduce her to his parents. Ana, meanwhile, falls hard for Christian, despite the fact she knows that she's probably going to get hurt - both physically, because of his love of spanking, paddling and tying her up, and emotionally, because he's distant and emotionally scarred.

Christian Grey is an interesting character, and I'll admit that part of the reason I want to read the other two books is because I want to know more about him. He's a character with a background that plays out in interesting ways in his life - not only in his sex life, but also in his career, his relationship with his family, and the way he reacts to Anastasia when they're not having sex. It is sort of annoying that he is obscenely rich and incredibly gorgeous, though.

Unfortunately, Anastasia is much less interesting to me. She's kind of boring and she is comically naive. My favorite is her reaction when she wakes up from a sex dream about Christian (page 231):
What the hell just happened? I'm in my bedroom alone. How? Why? I sit bold upright shocked ... wow. It's morning. I glance at my alarm clock - eight o'clock. I put my head in my hands. I didn't know I could dream sex. Was it something I ate? Perhaps the oysters and my Internet research manifesting itself in my first wet dream. It's bewildering. I had no idea that I could orgasm in my sleep.
OK, I could understand her never having actually had a sex dream, since she was an innocent virgin before she met Christian. But she didn't even know it was possible!? I admit, I laughed out loud. That's sort of Ana in a nutshell - epically innocent to the point of being obtuse. At times, I just had to shake my head.

Also, I get tired of Ana talking about how ugly she is. I can understand being a little shy about your body or your looks, especially when you're dating somebody impossibly gorgeous, but I get tired of hearing about it.

I have gone back and forth about whether I like the whole BDSM aspect of the novels. I'm definitely not really into that scene, in the sense that being dominated doesn't trip my trigger, and since the novel is from Ana's perspective, the descriptions of being spanked, hit, paddled, tied up, etc., don't strike me as particularly erotic. However, I like the way it's handled, and, objectively, if you're into being a submissive woman in the bedroom, "50 Shades of Grey" is probably one of the best ways to read about that - better than some romance novels that use rape in an attempt to get that same feel. It's much better that the woman has agreed to everything happening to her and has ways to get out of it if she's not into it anymore. Progress!

Really, the whole BDSM, dominant/submissive relationship between Christian and Ana is even more interesting when you know that the novels started out as "Twilight" fanfiction. I am intrigued by the idea of Bella actually verbally and contractually agreeing to be submissive to Edward, as opposed to him simply doing it and her acting like it is normal. In some ways, I think the relationship in "50 Shades of Grey," as screwed up as it is, is more healthy for impressionable people to read than "Twilight" because at least the weird power dynamic is discussed, sometimes in excruciating detail. Of course, we'll see where the other two novels go, because I'm interested to see whether we get into a storyline about Ana "fixing" Christian through the power of her love for him, which can be a bad idea in a real relationship.

Overall, the sex scenes are well-written enough and diverse enough that there's really something for most peoples' tastes here. Yes, there are several BDSM scenes, but there are other sex scenes, too, that are more traditional. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the diversity, because the rest of the book doesn't really do that. I think James spend so much time writing diverse sex scenes, she didn't really spend the time she needed to make the rest of the book good. She uses the same clunky turns of phrase throughout the book. It's easy to do - I've written enough fiction to know how easy it is to make your character wink or smirk 700,000 times - but editing should have fixed some of those problems. Of course, "50 Shades of Grey" was originally self-published, but it would have been good for James to have had somebody else read over it before she released it, because it is in need of some work.

So, is "50 Shades of Grey" really the shockingly sexy "mommy porn" that breathless news reports have made it out to be. Well, I'm not a huge reader of romance novels, but "50 Shades" didn't particularly shock me. There were quite a few sex scenes, and there were a couple of times when I found myself thinking, "Really? Again?" because they had literally just finished having sex. But "50 Shades" is not porn. I am not even sure it is erotica, because I am not sure where the line between romance and erotica is. Number of sex scenes? Number of descriptive words? Number of sex positions?

What I really think happened was that people who hadn't read romance in a while read "50 Shades of Grey" and were shocked by how much more descriptive it was than romance novels from the '80s and early '90s. People I know who read modern romance novels haven't been shocked by the descriptions of sex in the book, so I figure it must be sort of generational.

The graphic descriptions, plus the fact that the book describes something more than vanilla sex and it's connected to the marketing juggernaut that is "Twilight," makes it different and notable enough to spark interest and cause concern. It's all a bunch of needless hype, really, but, hey, it's also a damn fun read.

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