Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by EL James

July 22, 2012 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Just to be clear, I have pedestrian — if not lowbrow — tastes when it comes to reading. I enjoy Dan Brown, I’ve read Stephenie Meyer, and heck, even Matthew Reilly. So I just want you to know that I approached EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey not with the intent of trashing it but with immense interest in discovering what the fuss is all about.

The erotic-fiction book, the first in the Fifty Shades trilogy, is arguably the hottest literary phenomenon in the world right now. A recent report I read said James was making something like US$1.3 million a week, and no shortage of actors and actresses are already lining up for the inevitable film version. Brett Easton Ellis has apparently put his hand up to write the screenplay. Not bad for a story that began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction.

What you’re about to read is a brutally honest opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey. While I can see why some people might be obsessed with this “mummy porn” (as it has been distastefully called), like Twilight, I genuinely cannot understand why it has become so obscenely successful. Notwithstanding the shortcomings in James’s prose, the first 150 pages or so of this 500-page book (paperback version), I admit, were fresh, exciting and compulsive — but once the novelty wore off and the narrative stagnated, the remaining 350 pages became utterly brutal.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of an innocent young woman living in Seattle, Anastasia Steele, who meets and begins a relationship with the enigmatic, incredibly wealthy and “impossibly beautiful” (direct quote) Christian Grey, who may or may not be into some wild, kinky stuff in the bedroom. What a dilemma.

Anastasia was originally Bella Swan, and Christian was originally Edward Cullen, and the idea sprung from the fantasy that the Twilight kids were not as chaste as they appeared to be.

So you can see the attraction there. I’m sure millions of Twilight fans had probably been imagining the same thing, and James, who is actually a Brit, merely put her fantasy into words. The book intended to be a drug for ordinary girls dreaming of sexual heaven with a rich, handsome and perfect dude who, despite being capable of getting any girl in the universe, chooses them for some reason.

Accordingly, I didn’t have a huge problem with the unbelievable premise or the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey, because after all, it is an erotic fantasy. And besides, how is it any worse than Twilight?

That said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle to accept that Anastasia Steele is a 22-year-old American college student who:

  1. is completely oblivious to the fact that she is incredibly beautiful despite having a multitude of hot guys chasing after her all the time (and having eyes);
  2. has a killer body despite a horrible diet and almost never exercising;
  3. is not only a virgin but has never ever dated anyone in her entire life; and
  4. has never in 22 years loved or even “liked” a boy or man in that way – before Christian Grey.

But I digress. Fantasies are supposed to be crazy.

As mentioned above, I had fun with Fifty Shades of Grey’s first 10 chapters or so. Part of the reason is the ridiculous premise, and part of it is because of the building sexual tension between Ana and Christian. You know they’re eventually going to get it on at some point, and it’s the thrill of the chase and the anticipation that makes the book such an explosive page turner in its early stages.

I cannot profess to be experienced in erotic fiction so I don’t know if the first couple of sex scenes were any good, but I assume, from the public reaction, that they were more than adequate. I at least thought it was a decent payoff after all that anticipation. So far so good for Fifty Shades of Grey.

The bulk of the problem comes after that. I don’t want to spoil too much, but about a third of the way in, after finally losing her virginity, Ana is presented with an unusual offer from Christian. From here, the book becomes a lengthy and infuriating procrastination and negotiation process that does not get anywhere. Ana thinks about it, exchanges a dozen emails with Christian, thinks about it some more, sends more pointless emails, and thinks about it some more. There must seriously be a hundred emails set out in full in this book, and 90% of them are probably asinine. From memory they also go through the terms of a contract, line by agonizing line, on more than one occasion.

Don’t worry, there’s still some hanky panky in between (though even that becomes stale after a while), but all it does is prove that erotic fiction is best served as short stories and novellas, not 500-page monsters.

Much has been said about James’s literary prowess, or lack thereof. I don’t think she is as fundamentally awful as people say she is, and even if she is, I think they’re just jealous they’re not raking in the money like her. I actually think she’s not too far off Stephenie Meyer — it’s just easier to trash James because of the genre she is writing in.

James’s biggest problem was not getting an editor (or if she did get one, an editor unafraid to do something about the book’s nagging issues). For starters, James has the tendency to use a lot of repetitive words and phrases, often within a very short space. She’s absolutely in love with littering her prose with irritating words/phrases such as shit, crap, fuck, oh crap, holy shit, holy crap, holy fuck and holy cow (and almost always in italics too). She also goes through phases where she becomes addicted to whoa, wow, oh no and so forth. You cannot possibly read more than three of pages anywhere in the book without seeing these words at least a couple of times. It makes Anastasia Steele feel like a nagging middle-aged housewife as opposed to a young, red-blooded hottie.

The repetition is also rife in descriptions and body language. Every single time Christian Grey appears in the book we are reminded how handsome, good-looking, hot, gorgeous and impossibly beautiful he is. And he appears a lot. We are also told frequently that he likes to “cock his head to one side”, and that it might be the sexiest thing any man has ever done.

Ana, on the other hand, loves to bite her lip and must “flush” or “blush” at least once on just about every page. She also likes to remind people of the obvious, like “that was the first time I had sex in my house” (or something like that), when we know she just lost her virginity away from her house the day before. Or “as far as sex goes, that was pretty good” (or something like that), when we know she had only had sex a couple of times with the same guy!

Remember, this is a 500-page book.

The one phrase that practically killed me was the repeated mention of Ana’s “inner goddess”, who we are informed, is capable of doing all sorts of acrobatic movements. I still have no idea what an “inner goddess” is or is supposed to be, but I do know it annoys the hell out of me every time I see it.

I bitch, I know, but the truth is, Fifty Shades of Grey could have been so much better if the editor simply paid attention to fixing all its very fixable issues. Summarize the key points of the contract negotiations. Reduce the emails by about 70%-80%. Eliminate all the repetitious stuff I mentioned and pare it back into a 300-page book, tops. Then you might have something approaching special.

Instead, what we ended up with was an erotic fantasy born out of an intriguing idea, races off to a quick start and has some very good moments, but ultimately splutters and fails to maintain interest because it is too long, repetitive and uneventful.

But that’s just my unimportant opinion. Don’t let that stop you from discovering Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels on your own. For all its flaws, at least it is getting people to read and, from what I hear, spicing up people’s (sex) lives.

2 out of 5

PS: In case you were wondering, yes, I have started reading the second book in the series, Fifty Shades Darker. Whether I can finish it is another question.