It's being called "mommy porn" by even the soberest of news media — so naturally I had to check it out. E.L. James's erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction, meaning the characters and a few plot points bear striking similarities to Stephenie Meyer's girl-meets-vampire love story. But James, a British first-time author, reenvisions the story with a bookish young virgin who falls for a hunky self-made billionaire who's perfect in every way. Except that he wants — nay, needs — for her to be his kinky sex slave.
Studded with more steamy sex scenes than you can shake a riding crop at, the book's buzz among undersexed suburban housewives has driven it to the top of Amazon's "Hot New Releases" list. The Fifty Shades trilogy, including sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, occupies numbers one, two, and three on the New York Times best-seller list for ebook fiction. Hollywood studios are flogging each other for the movie rights.
I read Fifty Shades of Grey to see what all the fuss was about, and here's what this mommy can tell you unequivocally: It's a dozen shades of awful. Centering around the frustrating push and pull of a naïf who longs to be loved and a sicko who insists on being obeyed, the book is so absurd it's hard to know whether to laugh or cringe. There's the juvenile first-person narrative. The stupefying repetition of the phrase "my inner goddess." And the too-silly-for-soap-opera names: Christian Grey is the moody and mysterious control freak. Anastasia Steele is the tougher-than-she-looks lit major who has never pleasured herself but — it turns out, what splendid luck — will climax if you look at her funny. Break out the bondage gear and gag me.
Most disappointing of all is the language: banal, artless, and choked with clichés like "moth to a flame," "heart in my throat," and even (yes, she did) "go, girl!" Here's one that did me in: "My legs are suddenly the consistency of Jell-O. I'm so glad I decided to wear my best jeans this morning." (Did I mention that I found Twilight utterly unreadable?)
The sex scenes are pulse-quickening, to be sure. James is surprisingly deft at conjuring the feelings — both emotional and physical — of first lust. But then she kills the mood by having Anastasia gape at her pervy, pantless Adonis and utter (I swear), "Holy cow."
Other turnoffs include the disturbing demands that menacing and mercurial Grey makes on his doting puppy of a girlfriend. He can't be passed off as merely "adventurous in the sack"; he's an emotionally damaged man-child who threatens and frightens our heroine. And the fact that it turns her on only further turned me off.
A friend of mine, who loved the whole trilogy, swears that deep down it's a gripping love story. "As you read," she says, "the crazy sex becomes secondary, and you just fall in love with Christian falling in love. It's a (sort of) fairy tale about how this woman changed this man — something we've all tried at one point or another, yes?"
I can respect that. I can even see how, when viewed as pure fantasy, the idea of being told what to wear, what to eat, and, erm, when to kneel might appeal to mommies who spend all day, every day, taking care of others and wondering what the hell happened to their mojo.
A warning, though: The end of Fifty Shades of Grey is surprising and all but dares you not to dive into the second and third books. I won't be reading them. You'd have to tie me up and spank me.