Saturday, 8 September 2012

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

This review, I originally post on my Tumblr blog , and looking back now, and seeing how my review for Fifty Shades Darker turned out, this review actually came out a little too kindly! 

Since I bought the book myself (boo!), I've been lending it to friends so they don't have to waste their money on this...

I hadn’t really been intrigued by the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy until I saw the pretty front covers for the two later volumes- yes, yes, I know we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but clever marketing does seem to ensure that we will!  With a silver masquerade mask on one and a silver filigree key on the other, the aesthetic choice was very appealing to the Goth in me.  However, I don’t buy a book based on how pretty the cover is, and I found the blurb to be very unrevealing.  It wasn’t until a colleague of mine had told me how much she had enjoyed it that my interest was piqued.  She told me upfront about the kinky, BDSM element to the story, and as someone with an interest in fetish, I decided I’d give it a look-see. 
 It was only very shortly after beginning the book that I heard some of the more negative reviews, and I’ll be honest- I can see why some of those reviews are negative. 
The book doesn’t begin badly, and as the “surprise” element had already been revealed to me, I was expecting something quirky, like the movie The Secretary.  In all honesty though, it feels a little more like The Secretary-meets-Twilight.  It didn’t shock me like it seemed to intend to, and there were quite a few similarities to Stephanie Meyer’s vampire novels.   
I have read the Twilight series- my opinion of them is for another day, but to sum it up, I think they are neither as bad nor as good as the haters and the fans respectively say.  In this, Fifty Shades is very much the same.  It has its good and bad.  But similarities do not end there- for starters, Fifty Shades is set in a very similar part of the US to Twilight (mostly northern Pacific West Coast).  Main character Anastasia Steele does bear some similarity to Bella Swan- brunette, slightly awkward, inexperienced, slightly dysfunctional parents, clumsy and annoyingly unaware of her own attractiveness.  In turn, Christian Grey does put me in mind of vampire Edward Cullen. 
Sadly, another similarity is sloppy writing. 
I need to be fair- the writing isn’t terrible, but then again I have read far worse.  The book begins relatively well, and the use of present-tense prose is daring, but not poorly executed.  However, this unconventional method is not a common first choice for most authors for a reason, as it can often be awkward and un-flowing, as well as feeling a little unnatural.  For the most part, however, James makes the best of it, although it can make the passage of time more forgettable.  Although I commend James for this unconventional writing style, there does seem to be something lacking.  I think it would be fair to say that James has potential as a writer, but I feel she could do with more practice. 
Things happen relatively quickly, and I did find this a generally comfortable read.  It wasn’t un-enjoyable, and it was quite quick and easy to read, but it is with prolonged reading that flaws become more evident.  Some of the non-erotic scenes felt almost irrelevant, almost put in place just to give an actual passage of time between sex scenes.  The lack of conflict just seemed to present the story as a series of sexual encounters punctuated with some day-to-day tasks. To be honest, after a while, this book is very much riding on the sex scenes, which are quite hot, but even they become clichéd and contrived.  They try very hard to be super hot and kinky, but they became somewhat predictable and almost…scheduled, right down to the pillow talk Ana and Christian use toward one another. 
The sex scenes themselves were very steamy, but in all honesty, I have read far dirtier (heck, I’m going to admit that during my teenage “fan fiction” phase, Ive written far dirtier!).  They did not shock me as much as the reviews had promised, and I found the fetish element relatively light.  Perhaps this is because I already have an interest and some knowledge in the scene and the book is aimed at women who, like Ana Steele, are completely uninitiated in it.  But I also suspect that the reason behind this, for me, was that it was a little unbelievable; it feels, for me, that James’ experience boils down to research on Wikipedia (which is also suggested to Ana in the narrative), but nothing personal.  In fact for me, the most erotic moment in the book involved a very passionate kiss in an elevator that did not conclude in a sex scene; it felt quite real, and was really quite hot!
The characters aren’t terribly fleshed out, although not terrible in themselves.  It is, however hard to connect with the characters outside of the main affair, and I found I could take or leave all supporting characters.  Ana is cute and likeable, bright and witty, despite being amusingly prone to brain-to-mouth-filter failure, but what bothers me is the rather clichéd tactic of giving the desirable heroine a complete lack of understanding of her own desirability and- even worse- an “adorable” clumsy streak.  While many ducklings do become swans and take a long time to realise is, the tactic is overused or not cleverly utilised by writers today (especially romance writers), and the ability to conveniently fall over like a drunken prat at the strategic moment is not something I personally admire in my heroines!   
What makes Ana more annoying and less believable is a very contradictive attitude towards sex.  At the beginning of the book, she is a twenty-one-year-old virgin, but within a few days, she is not only no longer a virgin, but has indulged in some eyebrow-raising sexual acts that some people may not be aware exist!  I find this set up extremely conflicting with her own behaviour and attitude towards sexuality…if she truly is such a monogamous “waiting-for-the-right-guy” kind of gal, why does she jump into bed with the questionable Mr Grey after only a matter of a few days? Going from my own experiences, it seems very unlikely to me; sorry to say it, but a girl who has clung onto her virginity that long does not relinquish it so readily for an almost complete stranger who has already demonstrated “stalker tendencies”, and certainly would be more anxious about doing so.  She seems to be completely unconcerned by any complications or unknowns, unlike a real virgin. 
I can believe that virginity was a way for James to portray the innocence and naivety of the character, in which case, it was another example of lazy writing, as it actually makes less sense in the long run.  Also, I find it highly unlikely that she has highly convenient day-long periods with minimal bleeding and cramps (you’ll see what I mean- menstruation has to be short for convenient sex scenes after all!).  I also suspect James had very little personal understanding of how the contraceptive pill actually works. 
Christian Grey is potentially an Edward Cullen rip-off, going by the vague description, moodiness and convenient access to all sorts of lovely material goods such as flash cars and helicopters.  At times, I found him an extremely dislikeable character, even more so than Edward, because he is more arrogant, privileged and controlling, and at first seemed without an evidently sorrowful element to make it more palatable.  However, later on, Christian’s vulnerability is revealed, giving far more depth to the character, prompting me to want to find out more about his motivations.  Sadly, at times he seems to only fill the role of a one-dimensional, lady’s wet dream of a character.  I can’t truly picture his face because James seems to think continuously describing him as “beyond handsome” is enough of a description.  I’m sure it could be argued that giving him the background as an adopted millionaire with vast sums of wealth is to show that he’s hard working and successful, but also not truly a dream catch because of his personality flaws. Instead it only seems to serve the image of a distorted dream boy crush, a pure fantasy, who has anything he wants. 
As already mentioned, I don’t feel that James’ research into BDSM and fetish lifestyle was particularly in depth, as it feels that perhaps she has only used a few sources, and not taken from real life experience.  The sort of relationship she has set up rarely works as such in the real world, and I also strongly dislike the implication that people with such particular kinks are somehow “fucked up”, as it were.  From my own personal experience, and from knowing several loving couples (actual couples, not just playmates), this is something they do for fun in the bedroom.  They may extend a scene outside of the bedroom as part of the game, but it does not dominate their everyday, regular life in an unhealthy fashion. 
A stronger element of the writing was the dialogue, which was the most natural part of the narrative, and was very amusing in places.  The back-and-forth banter via email produced some genuine chuckles, and managed to flow very realistically in some places.  However, the conclusion was somewhat bewildering.  It would seem the lack of conflict prompted the ending, but suddenly, everything does an almost inexplicable one-eighty, and abruptly finishes.  It has compelled many readers to continue with the series quickly, including myself, but also left me feeling annoyed at such a lazy ending- I’m left feeling a bit cheated.  I’m now reading Fifty Shades Darker (which has been lent to me by my colleague), and it has literally picked up where it left off in such a way that it feels more like reading an extended ending or next chapter rather than another book. 
So to sum things up, I think I have been rather critical about Fifty Shades of Grey, and I’ll be honest- I’m very glad I didn’t pay full price, and I don’t think this will be a volume I will read repeatedly, if again.  But at worse it was only mediocre, with the potential for more.  Ultimately, I was a little disappointed as I had been expecting something far more grown up, containing real conflict, but it feels far more like a “first love” story.  It isn’t a terrible book, but by now, we should all know that a book that is really making waves for its erotica is not going to be a masterpiece.  And there’s nothing wrong with smut, I just don’t like it dressed up to be something it isn’t! 
But on the upside, I am now borrowing Fifty Shades Darker (I didn’t want to pay out again!) and so far, there is promise of more engaging narrative, substance, actual conflict and consequence!  I hope I’m not setting myself up for disappointment, so for now I’ll settle for a fluffy book to curl up and relax with, rather than expect a challenge…it may end up surprising me.    
Verdict: Borrow from a friend of the library, don’t pay full price.
(Disclaimer: images are not mine, and this review expresses my own personal opinions, and written for fun).

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