The hype is inescapable. It seems like every other woman I talk to has something to say about “Fifty Shades of Grey.” If you haven’t heard the news, the Fifty Shades trilogy is now the best-selling paperback series of all time–beating out the “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.” Just imagine how angry every other romance novelist in the history of Fabio-adorned covers must be. Better yet, imagine how frustrated Stephenie Meyer must be. The books were originally published online as Twilight fan-fiction (taking characters from another work and giving them a new plotline) entitled “Masters of the Universe” under the username Snowqueens Icedragon. The publisher even admits it on the colophon. Just to add to the oddity of the book’s sudden success, Snowqueens Icedragon is not some hormone-afflicted, internet-addicted teen. E.L. James is a middle-aged, ex-exec, mother and wife who just happened upon an unusually profitable hobby.
So somehow this woman’s little online hobby was picked up by a very lucky publisher and has become a international sensation—but how? By framing a very dark and intense erotic fantasy as a love story, making the socially peripheral world of dominant/submissive sexual arrangements casual enough to be discussed at any local book club.
Let me be the first to tell you, this is not achieved by a feat of literary prowess. James has some redeeming spots, such as the cheeky email exchanges between the lovers and charming characters. But the novel gets its traction from an adolescent style and a healthy dose of shock-value.
Narration is one of two major flaws. Maybe I’m just personally biased towards pithy female first-person narration, but Ana, our heroine (if you can even call her that) is infuriating. Her inner dialogue is so vapid and immature that it makes the graphic nature of the physical relationship humorous. She has a personified “inner goddess” and subconscious, who adds a comical good/evil element to her italicized interjections that feature a myriad of watered-down curses. It’s hard to tell if James is just trying to make a point by intermingling the coarse vulgarity of
Christian’s preferences with Ana’s simpering, lovesick ramblings or if she isn’t skilled enough to find a happy medium between the two.
In regards to Christian’s preferences, there’s no delicate way to put this second flaw. The whole situation is just truly botched from the beginning. Instead of a gradual build-up of intensity throughout the book, the sexual content peaks and plateaus early, never really living up to its own hype. James has worked diligently to contrive what could be very straightforward and has abandoned the most intriguing elements of her work in favor of the smut.
The whole book is, in a word, clumsy. The plot is merely a means to an end. The characters are decently developed and likeable enough that I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated that the story continued to come to a screeching halt for all the sex. In fact, James manages to completely bog down her story line so that by the time the book ends, we’re 514 pages invested and left feeling cheated. The pacing is flawed and does major damages to the book’s few strengths.
Frankly, the whole book felt like a scam. Fifty Shades is no classic in the making. It’s thriving because people, 99 percent of them women, are thrilled by finally having a socially acceptable way to explore a taboo subject—sexuality. Does it have its merits? Sure. Is it entertaining? Yes. If you’re fully aware of what sort of information you’re exposing yourself to and you’re not picky about plotlines or dignified narrators, Fifty Shades will suffice for a beach bag or carry-on filler. But I caution any would-be readers of the hype—borrow, don’t buy.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
By E.L. James
514 pages, Vintage Books, $15.95 (paperback)