50 Shades – A Trilogy Review

Yes. I read it.  All three books.

Am I ashamed? Should I be?

Am I proud? Not any more or less than reading any other book.

So would I recommend it? I guess that depends. I personally couldn’t stop myself from reading it. Because of all of the sexually explicit writing, of course.  Though I may not endorse it as a must read for everyone, I can tell you that I have some opinions on the book.  In this, I am not alone.

I read it because it became insanely popular. Just like I read Harry Potter because it was insanely popular and countless other books. Oh and I also read it because my husband mentioned it was fan fiction based on Twilight. Hold your horses. Three things – 1. What is fan fiction and how does an English Lit major have no idea that it exists as a real genre? I don’t recall a Fan Fiction 101 in the course catalog.  2. How in the world does this book that I’ve heard is all about S&M and sex have anything to do with Twilight? Did I miss a Twilight book somewhere? I don’t remember any sex until the last Twilight book and it was far from descriptive nor did it involve S&M.  3.  How does my husband know something I don’t about literature?  Have I been living under a rock?  Great.

So I had to read it. I needed to understand why it became so popular. I blame this need to dissect the popular on my general nosiness and on a college professor.  A renowned children’s lit authority, one of my professors discussed her fascination with the Harry Potter books because they became best sellers for both children and adults. It sparked an interest in understanding why some books make it to the top while others don’t.  So now I have an obsessive need to understand popular choice.  I doubt 50 Shades will make it on the both children and adult best seller lists but I still had to know what was the driving force behind the popularity on the adult best seller list.  That and because it was “loosely” based on Twilight.

So I read all three books and this is what I think.  The books are chock-a-block full of descriptive sex. If you had no idea, sorry to ruin it for you, but at least now you know.  E.L. James may be highly criticized for her poor writing but what she lacks in original characters or plot development, she certainly makes up for in very intense descriptive sex. Of course I don’t have anything to compare her writing to, I don’t think the Joy of Sex  counts as perspective.  Regardless, I felt that she managed to capture the sex rather well.  I don’t think they give awards for “Best Descriptive Sex Author” though.

Most of the supporting characters, however, seem to have literally jumped from the pages of Twilight with only slight changes like ages, occupations, race and name. Although if I hadn’t known this was Twilight fan fiction, I wonder if I would have noticed the glaring similarities. On a side note, as one who has been involved in the hispanic community the majority of my life, I take personal offense to the character Jose Luis Rodriguez. Dear E.L. – please stop making him say, “Ay”. And to your editor, next time please have someone research the name as it is already taken by a popular artist.  But then again, who really noticed this small detail besides me?

Having read all three books, I can see the appeal. I’m pretty sure that if the book were just sex or S&M, it would have been passed over for other, more intriguing books. I’m almost positive that the combination of sex, romantic entanglement within a completely understandable though highly criticized male/female role woven throughout a redemptive romance guaranteed this book’s best seller status. Separate these qualities and you have a crazy “how to” book, a bizarre study in feminist theory and a “been there, done that story”. Though predictable and lacking in-depth found in other literary classics, the combination of the aforementioned qualities spread out over the course of three books makes it a popular read and quite possibly an interesting read.  Or it really is just about the sex.

  • From what I understand, the immediate attraction to the book was of course the sex.  Desperate and not so desperate housewives – not so desperate being Victoria Beckham because if she’s desperate, lord help us all – picked the first book up in droves.  Recently I read an article mentioning that the author was making a million dollars a day on the sales of these books.  That, my friends, is a whole lot of intrigue.  So what is the big deal?  Hasn’t someone written a book like this before?  Plenty and more well-known authors, but again this book has more than just sex, and more than just a bit of S&M.   Don’t misunderstand, the book is about sex.  Lots of it.  Lots. Of. It.  But it’s more than that.  Isn’t it always?  I find it interesting that female protagonist is constantly assessing sex by asking those questions that most of us would rather NOT think about much less discuss.   How does your past affect you, how do you like it, what’s ok, what’s not ok, does any of this change when it’s more than just sex?  It get’s worse – the questions get harder – what if you like some of this “kinky stuff”?  OH NO!  Who wants to go there?

But  maybe it’s easier to read these questions in a book, to see it through some one else’s eyes.  Isn’t it always?  Isn’t that what makes any book so appealing?  To lose yourself in a “fairy tale” life – And by fairytale I mean endless romantic gestures, helicopter rides, new cars, shopping sprees and ALWAYS great sex.  No bad days, financial stress, or unfulfilled lives .  A “fairy tale” life that is sprinkled with questions that are easier to face through the eyes of the central characters.   So while you are being drawn in by the “fairy tale”, imagining yourself as the recipient of such lavish romantic gestures, the author is also subconsciously asking you the same questions –  how does your past affect you, how do you like it, what’s ok, what’s not ok, does any of this change when it’s more than just sex.  So much for just some descriptive writing.

  • But again, if it was a book just about sex, then it would be only a clever “how to” book.  It also delves into a taboo area of male/female roles.  I like to call this the “I was so distracted by the sex that I didn’t realize I was reading about a topic that typically draws out controversy.” On its own, this taboo makes most people uncomfortable because it covers a vast arena of topics like glass ceiling, equal rights, feminism, etc.  You must also tread lightly when discussing roles because the resulting definition often brings certain implications or interpretations that can be considered offensive.  Of course this issue of volatility when defining roles is questionable because let’s be honest, sex alone makes most people uncomfortable, so exploring a male/female roles is really just an added bonus in these books.  A highly visible bonus.

The most obvious is known without opening the book – the S&M, dominant/submissive roles.  And while this is important to the book, I think it’s only a pre-cursor to a deeper look into the roles we play as men and women.   It’s almost as though the author moves to shock us with the disclosure of S&M only to scale back and deal with the every day expression of male/female roles.  Again with the distraction, “I’ll distract them with the S&M so that when we look at how the characters interact on a normal day, they won’t notice I’m really looking at the roles they play outside of sex.” Clever.  Very clever, E.L.  If you’ve read the books, you’ve noticed Christian’s character has a need to control every detail and to ensure the safety and well-being of Anastasia, the female protagonist.  Though painted as naive in the ways of sex, this girl seeks her own financial independence, knows how to take care of herself and can also shoot a gun.  Not your typical stereotypical submissive female.

You could argue that Christian’s controlling nature is due to his childhood abuse and that would be spot on, but I also feel that this is a further expression of a well-known male role.  Not to say the right or necessary one, but nonetheless, the author’s interpretation of the male protector role.  The female protagonist and women everywhere are screaming loudly, but I don’t need protecting!  True.  But needing protection and the man in your life wanting to protect you are not necessarily correlated but can act independently of each other.  It used to drive me crazy when my husband would get annoyed with me for something silly like not calling to check in (at 3 am).  Did he think I couldn’t take care of myself? Hadn’t I survived a 3 am outing long before he was around?  Absolutely!  But was this his intention, to question my ability to care for myself?  Or was it concern for my safety and the need to protect me from harm? I used to take this as an affront.  That somehow this concern for my well-being translated into my inability to call a cab.  I can call a cab.  I  can take care of myself.  I don’t need some man telling me what to do.  Am I right?  But again, there is a crazy thought that the two things can exist separately – my husband can still want to protect me while I maintain the ability to call myself a cab.  And all of this can exist without the need to control but rather as a fulfillment of a natural role.

But we always want it to be one or the other or directly correlated.  I find it interesting that this book even touches on this issue because it is most definitely a cause for criticism.  How dare the author write a character like Christian that is overly concerned that Anastasia eating something, wanting her to check in, getting thoroughly annoyed that she defies his “orders” not to go out with friends.  The list goes on.  Could it be that though it is Christian’s nature to control it could be also a fulfillment of a natural role and ultimately an expression of his love for her?  No way.  The explanation could not possibly be that he cares for her.

  • Redemptive Story?  How is this crazy book about sex at all redemptive?  You have to read all three books to understand this point.  I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll just say that Christian and to some extent Anastasia are redeemed by each other’s love in the end.  Anastasia saves Christian from a controlling life lacking in true connection with her and others that most likely would have led to his destruction. It’s bound to happen.  Anastasia on the other hand is redeemed from a poorly dressed, small life, lacking in the accomplishment of big dreams and multiple orgasms.  What more could you ask for in a book?  And so altogether, you have the makings of a million dollar a week book series.

Bonus Material:  For those that like to psychoanalyze or for those needing to understand how one gets past the S&M – some thoughts.  These books show an interesting side of the complication of sexuality and sexual relationships. Christian Grey has an abusive past.  And not that every S&M devotee is a product of abuse, but I completely understood how a person having gone through abuse would seek this way to have “control” in their life.  Even more understandable when introduced to the lifestyle by a more experienced and physically attractive older woman as written in the book. Additionally, I found it interesting E.L. James exploration of a person’s boundaries. What was too much, what changes when you no longer need to exert physical control over others, and what this does to your previously adopted coping mechanisms.  If you still can’t get past the S&M, I’m sure you’ll survive without reading these books.

These books are most likely not for the high brow reader, but then again I’m not sure that E.L. James was going for the Pulitzer.  But maybe I’m wrong.  In which case, I might suggest she overhaul some of the non-central characters. Just a thought.

Overall, I liked the books.  But don’t listen to me, I really just read them for the sex. 😉

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