Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn't get a chance to take a traditional vacation this summer. While everyone else was jet setting to exotic locales like San Francisco, Orlando and Edmonton, I didn't even make it past the downtown core, never mind leave the city! Truth is, I didn't mean for my summer to turn out this way. I had big plans to take a road trip through the Rockies, even ride my bike through Regina, or go shopping in Montana but I unintentionally turned into one of "those people" I vowed never to be. You know the type of person that tries to juggle a million different things at once and constantly forgets to take time for herself until the entire summer has gone by and she doesn't even have a tan to show for it. You know, one of those...
The closest I came to taking an actual vacation was to put my brain on one by reading the most popular adult fiction book of the summer: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Along with the other books of this trilogy, Fifty Shades has been on the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List for past 27 weeks and counting. The Calgary Public Library consistently has over 750 patrons on the wait list, including normal paperback, large print and electronic formats. And any retailer that sells books – be it Chapters, Costco or Walmart – has hundreds upon hundreds of the prolific but unassuming black and white covers lining the shelves.
Fifty Shades has saturated the adult reading market, grabbing the attention of avid readers and occasional readers alike. I picked up the trilogy in ePUB format after weeks of fielding requests for the novel at the information desk. I had no idea what the book was about when I picked it up and at page 150, I still had no idea what it was about. Even now, after finishing it, my comprehension of the plot is still quite hazy. Here's what I know:
Fifty Shades of Grey introduces our socially awkward heroine, Anastasia Steele, a recent university graduate who is as hopeless with computers as she is in love. Ana meets a man that completely turns her world upside down, Christian Grey - a mysterious 20-something billionaire who, despite his designer clothes, aloof demeanour and casual use of the company helicopter, has noble philanthropic inclinations. As the story meanders along, Ana and Christian become tied together in a predictable "opposites attract" dynamic. Ana, annoyingly insecure in her appearance and sexual prowess, channels her "inner goddess" to crack Christian's painfully constrained outer shell. As their relationship slowly progresses, Ana falls in love while Christian remains at an arm's length, expressing his affection through aggressive and controlling behaviour. The constant push and pull between Ana and Christian goes nowhere pretty quickly, the emotional tension lifting only by the barest of measures during their sexual encounters which are, at times, long winded and emotionally tiresome.
From what I can figure, Fifty Shades of Grey has a character-driven plot but the characters are so devoid of depth that it is impossible to decipher any plot at all. It's my opinion that the driving force behind this otherwise plotless romantic story is sex. Like many books in the contemporary romance genre, steamy love scenes are integral to the progression of the story and often the primary reason we're drawn to such escapism. What makes Fifty Shades different from the majority of popular contemporary romance is the taboo nature of such steamy love scenes which are less about "lovemaking" and longing glances from across the room and much more about sadomasochistic desires and being flogged for pleasure. Christian, an emotionally unavailable man, expresses his (un)affection with Anastasia by controlling everything she does - including what clothing she wears, what she eats, how she acts in public and her role in the bedroom. Granted, Ana doesn't take to the submissive role easily and repeatedly questions Christian's actions; but she ultimately resigns to the predictable romantic but ultimately self-destructive adage "If I love him hard enough maybe I can change him!". And we all know how that age-old story ends....
While I pride myself in being very liberal minded and open to all sorts of subjects when it comes to my reading, I was put off not by the taboo nature of the story but how the book was written. I know I am not alone in my opinion when I say that Fifty Shades is not the most scholarly or poetic book ever written. All over the Internet you will find extensive reviews that center on this aspect alone. E.L. James, herself, admits to not being a writer and is genuinely surprised about how well this book (and it's sequels) are doing. There's an excellent interview on CBC Radio's Q with Jian Ghomeshi where James speaks candidly about her literary beginnings and the inspiration behind the trilogy. The author, a former television producer, caught the writing bug after reading Stephanie Myer's Twilight series and decided to write her own version of the vampire saga but with non-supernatural characters. The book, first self-published online as fan fiction, received a cult-like readership and eventually garnered attention from publishers before catching on like wildfire across the world. Yet, despite it's unprecedented popularity, Fifty Shades of Grey is meandering and repetitive, and would have benefited greatly from a critical once-over by more than one editor. James' lack of experience as a fiction writer is so evident that the story feels as if it is just a vehicle for describing, in provocative and explicit detail, sexual encounters that are meant to shock readers as much as it is supposed to enrapture them. However, I suppose that is what erotic fiction essentially is, in which case E.L. James totally hits the mark.
Now for all the criticism I've been giving this book, I should be completely honest with you: I read Fifty Shades from cover to cover in a matter of days. Sure, it may have been out of sheer stubbornness and the naive belief that maybe, just maybe, this book would get better as I read on, but I read it just the same. It is the epitome of a guilty pleasure read: guilty because I took so much pleasure in reading something I genuinely disliked from beginning to end. The experience can be equated to the cult-classic television show, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, where a man and his robot companions spend every episode watching terrible B-grade movies and make hilarious commentary about what they are seeing throughout the entire screening of the film. I received more enjoyment talking, criticizing, philosophizing, pondering and making fun of this book than I ever did reading it and I think that is where Fifty Shades of Grey gets its strength.
This book has an uncanny ability to engage readers. Whether you loved it, despised it or couldn't care less, you probably have an opinion about it. So, I'll leave this forum open: What do you think about E.L. James trilogy Fifty Shades? What number are you on the wait list? Who should play Ana and Christian in the movie slated for production in the next few years? Give us all Fifty Shades of your opinion in the comments!