An honest, frank review of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by a ‘former’ hater
Editor’s note: Dear my parents and family: This may be disturbing for you to read. Fair warning.
I’m about four years fashionably late to the “Fifty Shades of Grey” party. I originally saw this book on Amazon.com about the time it was released. I passed on it because of its 3-star average rating and negative reviews. As soon as I saw a fellow reader’s need for violence after the amount of times the phrase “inner goddess” was used, I knew this book was not for me. I’m a book snob on occasion and decided I had much better use of my time than to read some girl refer to her inner self as an inner goddess.
Well, as we all know by now, “Fifty” and its successors, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” are incredibly hard to avoid. I jumped on the bandwagon of the “Fifty” hateration as I felt there were much better books in the genre out there (there are) and that it gave an incomplete, somewhat dangerous view of Bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism (BDSM) culture. (Trying out that kinky arena should not be done without accurate research,. There’s a reason its motto is “safe, sane, and consensual”). I judged “Fifty” based on rumors and reviews of poor writing. Bad me. I was called on it, too: How can I say anything, contribute to any argument or debate, without having read it? Damn it. I couldn’t. Fine then, if I want to have an opinion on the books, I’ll read them!
As one who majored in English Lit., I also decided to not just read these books, but analyze them and write out my response. I’ll be reviewing the books separately as I go along, rather than write a consolidated piece on the whole trilogy. I can then give my unspoiled reactions as I finish each. Without further ado, the review! (Yes, I intentionally rhymed. Get over it.)
Let’s get the writing bit out of the way first — it’s technically not great. And by not great, I do mean bad. Bad syntax, diction, flow, etc. The entire time reading this, I felt as if the author, E L James, was penning a story for a creative writing scholarship essay. The whole thing reeked of the desperate attempt to impress. It shouted, “Look at all the great 50-cent words I can use! I bet you don’t see ‘avuncular’ every day!” To my shock and awe, James even uses assonance in the book (using the same vowel sounds in a row). I can see her writing, “I need to expend some of this excess, enervating energy” and thinking, “Oh yes, yes that’s good! That will get me an A for sure!” To show she also can master consonants, James sprinkled alliteration throughout the story. See, Writing Professor Grading This Essay of a Book, she can write! (Sarcasm.)
I’ve also rarely read characters in their early- to mid-20s speak so cloyingly well: “My heart is in my mouth as I reread his epistle…” Did Anastaia Steele just use “epistle” to describe an email? Yes, yes she did. I could go on and on about the writing horrors, the redundancy of overused phrases and descriptors, such as the amount of times “oh my” pops up, the use of “shades of” once Grey says “fifty shades of fucked up”; all descriptors of how gorgeous Kate Kavenaugh is (Ana’s secret girl crush?), the creation of two characters inside Ana that can apparently only be named inner goddess and subconscious, etc., etc., etc.,… Actually, I do have to tackle “inner goddess” as it was that phrase that originally turned me off. It was worse than I expected.
“Inner goddess” is Ana’s vision for her sexuality. I’m no psychologist, but it looks as if Ana is so emotionally floored by the fact that she enjoys kinky sex she can’t actually own those feelings. It’s an inner-Ana sex goddess who is craving all the out-of-this-world orgasms Christian Grey can give, who is the little devil on Ana’s shoulder telling her to simply give in to Christian and enjoy, to ignore what her horrible subconscious tells her. “Inner goddess” is a backflipping, gymnastics-spinning, figure-skating seductress. A seductress Ana dreams of being, perhaps? That would be my best guess, but it was beyond strange to have a completely separate entity pictured inside Ana each time anything sexual or remotely romantic came about with Christian. We’ll get to subconscious later.
Author James actually has moments of, well, not brilliance, but decency, e.g. the emails between Ana and Christian – the only real times the characters seem to communicate effectively. Imagine that! Those cannot make up for the other 90 percent of the book. But it’s not about the writing, fans will say, it’s the love story. Going in, I tried to constrain my focus to the story, but that expectation soon became ridiculous; some things cannot be ignored! However, the love story did push this book out of the zero-to-one range to about a three on a scale of 5.
The story is a cliche – innocent, middle-class virgin girl falls for the rich bad boy. Innocent Girl then realizes it’s not all fun and games with her Bad Boy, that Bad Boy has a real dark side. She then must pull him back into the light, with her where he belongs! As my friend Amy once explained: It’s the Indiana Jones Girl problem – she is the only one who can defeat all odds and circumvent all perils to reach past the rocky exterior and find the pure grail, the loving heart, within. What girl out there hasn’t dreamed of that with her own respective Bad Boy? These cliches are cliches because they work. And I will begrudgingly admit this story works. I’ve read better, a lot better, but I’ve also read worse.
What makes this story a 3: the cliched aspect described above. It’s dramatic, it keeps the reader turning the page, and if Ana can be successful, then true love really will conquer all and we get our “happily ever after” that we can witness again and again, each time we read it.
Then there’s the royal branch of this cliche, as this Bad Boy also happens to be a prince! (In the U.S., we don’t have real princes, we have millionaires.) Who out there didn’t dream of her prince someday coming to sweep her off her feet, love her for all her oddities, and show her a new world? (Damn you Disney! I still love you, though.) Ana’s prince comes along and gives us all the happy feels. We have something to route for, to cheer for when Ana and Christian seem to be bridging the gap between them. We can yell at both characters when they’re letting their differences get in the way. Our emotions become entranced.
And then the sex. James grasps us by the hearts, then by… there. We all dream of the chemistry Ana and Christian experience with each other. That sexual tension is almost more fun to read than the sex itself. What’s bad to say about any of the above? See below.
What doesn’t push this story past a 3 is a combination of three things: 1) the writing; 2) James’s attempt to juxtapose the cliched love story against a smidge of dark erotica that doesn’t work; and 3) Ana. I’ve already covered the writing, so let’s move on to numbers 2 and 3.
Number 2: James had all the makings for a good story if she stuck only to the cliche, but then she casts Christian as a controlling, overprotective, obsessive stalker in addition to all his charm. Reading that looks much worse than how Grey is presented to us in the book, but that’s what he is. He obtains all Ana’s private information; he upgrades her plane tickets without her knowledge (can that actually be done by the way?); he shows up at the very bar she and her mother are dining at, his first stop at her work, his quick rescue of her while she’s drunk at a bar, the letters and gifts sent to locations she’s never mentioned to him, etc. These types of men are generally sociopaths, or at the least clinical narcissists. But this isn’t supposed to be a dark erotica tale, it’s supposed to be adult-Disney!
Dark erotica is tantalizing to read, so maybe that’s what James is going for, but she has all that with Christian’s tortured past and penchant for kinky sex. I’m sure his past, once explained in full, will be the reason for all those red-flag tendencies described, but it’s hard to defend a guy when he’s not all that defendable. Christian as the dark stalker doesn’t jibe well with how James seems to want us to feel about Christian, that he’s a redeemable, troubled, rich playboy with kinky sex on the brain.
Number 3: Ana. Oy, how to tackle Ana? I don’t think I’ve seen a character with as much annoying self-doubt. Her self-esteem is practically non-existent, except for her “inner goddess” of course. Her constant over-analyzing is exhausting; the way she speaks is irritating; and her inability to accept herself is straight-up infuriating. And I do mean that. I have yelled, aloud, at Ana several times, usually when she’s constantly questioning herself and her self-worth, such as rationalizing why Christian can’t possibly care for her despite all evidence to the contrary.
The manifestation of all this self-hatred is her subconscious. Subconscious is the second mental character and is an outright bitch. There are too many times when it flays Ana for no reason I can comprehend, other than its (Ana’s) own piousness. (It almost made me prefer the “inner goddess”, but the “inner goddess” is… an “inner goddess” that does aerial flips and ice skating twirls when sexy time is about to happen. I just can’t even…)
Yet with all that self-angst going on, Ana also places herself on a high pedestal when it comes to Christian’s sexual preferences. He’s abnormal; something had to have made him this way; he wants to beat the crap out of her for any possible infraction of his rules (he doesn’t, nor did he say he did); he has no ability to love, and can never love; he’s depraved! For someone who hadn’t had sex until she met Christian, Ana is incredibly judgemental about it. Especially for someone who also enjoys Christian’s kinks that much.
Take the belt scene for instance: She dares Christian to do his worst, to show how he’ll “really” punish her, conveniently forgetting he said he would stick to her limits and gave her a safe word if anything became too much. Christian shouldn’t have taken her up on the challenge knowing her extreme aversion to pain. No ifs, ands, or buts about that. But for Ana to then turn around when it’s all over, when he’s done exactly as she’s asked, and yell he’s “all kinds of fucked up,” that he needs to get his “shit together”? All the sudden we went from zero to 60 without any clue. We go from Ana enjoying and exploring kinky sex to “lay into me with all you have so I can reach into your darkness” to “you’re a sick son of a bitch!”
To Ana, I say this: Turn that high and mighty finger around and look in the mirror. You might see you two really are a mental pair. (I’m told she gets better. Please, please, please reading gods let that be true.)
So is this book worth the read? As the title of this review suggests, I no longer hate it. If $4 won’t break your bank account, my response is “why not?” This book is not smut – the main character can’t even call her vagina a vagina or any other explicit euphemism while inner monologuing, she can only say “there.” This is a romance novel that did keep me turning the page despite my complaints. There were some good moments, and I did get charmed a few times by the thought of Christian. It’s an easy, fast read that may lead to a craving for other books, and I can’t in good conscience discourage that.
Because “Fifty Shades” started out as “Twilight” fanfiction, it had a ready-made audience of TwiHards.* The furor it started with readers at least opened the lid on a formerly taboo subject and had people reading for fun again. However, for those of you who have stuck with me to this point, I leave you with one request: Read some of the authors I list below.
This book is not the best the genre has to offer. Others are out there that will make you cry, make you agonize, and will hopefully show you that writing can be done well without being boring.
*I’m a “Twilight” fan, but I don’t remember “Twilight” being this bad – was it this bad?! I hope not.
Three stars out of five.
Suggestions for further reading:
Cherise Sinclair: “Masters of the Shadowlands” Series
Joey Hill: “Knights of the Boardroom” Series
Anna Zaires: “Krinar” Trilogy
More intense/darker stories:
Anna Zaires: “Twist Me” Trilogy
Aleatha Romig: “Consequences” Trilogy
Kitty Thomas: All works