My mission statement: To read the books (book, actually, initially, as I didn't know if I'd make it past the first one) and ascertain for myself if they were worth all the fuss. Truly, I just got tired of being outraged on third and fourth-hand information. There are commonalities of complaints (I'll get to that later) which I repeated because they were accepted truths, sort of like a meme. And when I saw fans rebuffing the claims, I started to wonder, and I wanted to be informed, especially with it becoming such a discussion lately. So, shall we begin?
Fifty Shades of Grey- three stars
Enjoyable enough that I scrambled to get the next book once I'd finished. It's sexy, fun, brainless entertainment; the kind of salacious, silly amusement I got when my grandma let me stay up late with her to watch Dynasty. I was actually surprised at how much I liked Ana; going into it, all I'd heard is how she was a doormat, stupid, useless, a pushover. The level of inexperience the author puts her on made me roll my own eyes, but other than that, I found her to be savvy, smitten, sweet. And I had no idea before I read it that the book ends with her leaving him; which I believe deserves a slow clap from us all.
So, why only three stars? I just made it clear I enjoyed it a lot. But there were technical issues that made it impossible for me to give it a higher rating. The first-person narration goes down smooth like a milkshake, and, whether or not the inner goddess crap made me chuckle or want to throttle someone, it is meant as humor, so there's little I could do but ignore it when it started to annoy. But the plot is severely lacking, the sex is repetitive and flat, and with the ending having a severely unfinished feeling to it, the whole thing ended up seeming more like a prologue to the other two books than anything else. The whole point is: They fall in love. That's it. I like my romance/erotica with a little more story to it than that. And the two sequels deliver in spades. And, after having read the other two, there's a discomfort rereading the first and thinking how he's viewing their relationship and his expectations of it. In other words, sort of necessary to get to the meat of it, but not the greatest.
Fifty Shades Darker - four stars
Now this is more like it! A stalker ex-submissive with a gun! A sleazeball, sexually harassing boss! Helicopter sabotage! Mrs. Robinson's interference, which leads to some Dynasty-style bitch slap downs! All of this and some genuinely touching character development and romance. If the title of your sequel is going to include the word 'Darker,' it actually better be, and this has no problem wading right into some very strange waters. What secret could be so horrible that he truly believes that Ana will leave him the moment she learns it? Hell, could it have been anything other than Oedipal? And yet, it actually touched on something very real, with Christian's past abuse. Actual romance comes to the forefront, and despite some turgid dialogue, a lot of Christian's realizations and declarations had little hearts popping in my eyes.
Why four stars? The writing is worlds better than the first, and the plot... well, there is a plot. The sexy times remain sort of indistinguishable (I probably shouldn't be admitting to this, but in the other romance/erotica novels I've read, and there have been quite a few, I can distinctly recall each sex scene; they sort of all run together, though the tender ones are a welcome addition, and really move the book ahead instead of seeming gratuitous, not that I mind that either, heh!) And it is very obviously the middle segment of a series. I feel like any idiot can figure out not to use their work e-mail to write sexy e-mails to their powerful, famous boyfriends (for God's sake, woman, you could at least log-in to your personal e-mail account let alone use the freakin' BlackBerry in your purse!) Blaming Ana for the debacle at the end of the first book because she didn't use the safe word grated, though Christian admitting that her leaving both devastated him and made it possible for them to be together almost makes up for it. For a completely over-the-top story, it does handle things sensitively, and this is the book where I genuinely became engaged in Ana and Christian's relationship.
Fifty Shades Freed - three and a half stars
A satisfying conclusion, but not as good as the last book deserves. It's overlong; I feel like you could almost remove the entire honeymoon and it could only improve it. It also feels like Christian's taken a step back as a character (safe words again? I thought lovers don't need safe words. I liked that!) Like all involved and involving fanfic, the conclusion seems hilariously convenient, and elements of it come out of freakin' nowhere!
Why three and a half stars? When the first things I can say about it are criticisms, it's actually to its credit that it managed to finagle that high a rating out of me. The story is exciting, and though Christian seems to backslide a bit, the romance is still involving. It almost felt as if E.L. James felt that she had to make it naughty again, so the tenderness from the second book sort of takes a backseat, and despite the light bondage and spankings, the sex still seems samey. Perversely, my favorite might be the one where Ana safe words Christian, because it moves the characters ahead. The climax (you know, plot-wise, heh) isn't bad, but I would have really preferred that Ana had acted smartly and at least tried to contact Christian--left a note, contacted Sawyer, anything. I was truly scared they were going to say that Jack didn't even have Mia in the end, but the author at least gives Ana that, that she saves Christian's sister. We're treated to a glimpse of the Greys a la domestique two years in the future (er, present, as it takes place in 2014) and it's a hell of a lot more satisfying than the Harry Potter epilogue, and that's not saying a lot; they're happy, and settled down, and expecting their second. All right.
It feels like some massive continuity errors and tone shifts persist. I'm just not sure what to do with Mrs. Robinson. It felt as if they were setting her up as a villain in the second one, as a nemesis for Ana, but a last minute about-face struggle to make her sympathetic. A mention of her husband having beaten her makes Christian's snark at the end of Darker about how it's no wonder that he left her seem callous and odd. And her husband appearing in name only as the one who bailed Hyde out of jail is less of a plot twist and more of that fanfic structure rearing its ugly head again; it did make me wonder if it was originally intended to be Elena and E.L. James decided to pull out a last minute surprise that simply makes no sense. (I should mention at this point that I, myself, have written far more fanfiction than I really ought to admit to, and am all too familiar with and guilty of this VERY SAME THING which is how and why I recognized it as quickly as I did. When you're delivering a serialized story to a receptive audience, you do feel the need to try to surprise.)
In Conclusion: My world wasn't exactly rocked. I've mentioned that I read quite a bit of modern romance/erotica, and the story itself consistently invokes the classics and their tortured heroes, like Hardy's Tess and Bronte's Jane Eyre as well as tropes of the contemporary genre, and this seemed a bit unexceptional compared to my favorites (Teresa Medeiros' Breath of Magic is actually on my favorites shelf.) But I can also see why it resonates with women, especially those who don't commonly read romance/erotica, as it does hit on the most typical archetypes. Ana is a better-than-average heroine, and the fact that Christian unconditionally trusts her sets it apart from a lot of the romance/erotica genre; his trust issues are with himself, and while this occasionally affects Ana, she's not blamed for it. They were entertaining. Fun, silly. I can see them becoming the sort of thing I read when I'm feeling down.
So, is this the worst thing that's happened to feminism in the modern age? I've read a romance novel, by my favorite romance author nonetheless, where the woman is tied up and made to walk behind the hero's horse to his friend's castle; after parading her about and humiliating her, he all but rapes her that night, but it's an erotic rape! (Yeuch! Romance tropes, why do you do this to me?!) The next day, she defends him against muuuurder, because she LOVES him! I bring this up to say bluntly: I've read worse. Much worse. Actually, the only reason these books get so much heat is because they're bestsellers, and therefore more noticeable than all of those burgeoning shelves at your local B&N, stacked with romance paperbacks. Ironically, FSOG is sort of the vanilla version of the genre, which no doubt lends to its insane popularity.
Ana is competent, she's good at her job and Christian loves her because she holds her own with him. That's literally the crux of their relationship. I don't think I'd even have debated if it was misogynistic if this wasn't such a huge issue right now--actually, pretty sure I wouldn't have.
Let's take a look at some individual claims that are so common, I assumed they were true (and this is why I read the books, to be more informed):
No safe words. False. Yellow for approaching your limit, and red for stop, are stated right in the contract Christian gives Ana.
Christian ignores the safe words. False. She never invokes them in the first book, and he stops immediately when she says 'stop' in Darker, and 'red' in Freed.
Ana forgets to use the safe words. Sighs. This is true, or so it's claimed at the beginning of Darker. Though when you're reading the scene in question, it feels pretty obvious that she's pushing herself to her limits trying to prove to him and herself that she can take it. She can't. And she dumps his ass right afterward.
He's so controlling, he cuts her off from her friends. The only friend he actively dislikes her hanging out with is Jose, and that's because the first time he meets him, he's basically trying to force himself on a drunken Ana. He never stops her from... doing much of anything, actually, as she fights his controlling tendencies at every turn, and even teases him about his 'control freakery.' Her friends do conveniently disappear for large chunks of the story but, honestly, that's a failure in plotting more than it is in Christian.
It misrepresents BDSM. To each their own, right? I'm neither a great supporter or detractor of the practice. But, honestly, I don't think it represents BDSM in any way. What's shown is basically rough sex with some light bondage and spanking; the hardest it gets are nipple clamps, and a butt plug incident. And maybe the spreader bar. Honestly, I've seen more readers blanch at the period sex than anything that could be considered like BDSM. It does say that Christian does what he does because he's damaged, but is careful to also make note that that's not usual. And that Ana's just not cut out to be a sub, which is why the idea is abandoned... pretty much two-thirds of the way through the first book, when Christian seems to no longer care about the contract. If the heart of the issue people have is, this will lead to unsafe BDSM practice? I have to go with FALSE.
The contract makes him a super control freak pervert. True. Ana herself points this out. Many times. There's a reason she never signs, and why he forgets the contract once he begins to fall in love with her.
He basically rapes her. WHOA! Put the breaks on, there. Of course, things are going to strike people in different ways, and I'm sure some people would be uncomfortable with it. Since this is always going to be subjective, I'm going to make some objective statements about the sex: Ana's never ambivalent about having sex with Christian. Ana does initiate sex when she wants. It doesn't 'just happen,' and she decides to 'go along with it.' Ana's desire is actually a large part of the story, of her character; I've seen it called an awakening, which I suppose is a good description, though I saw it more as... a woman discovering what she likes, and doing it with who she loves. Is that an awakening, per se? And, yes, Christian occasionally tries to manipulate a situation with sex, which Ana calls him on; she refuses his 'weaponized' sex, and also stops him when he attempts to have sex with her out of anger or a desire for revenge instead of love.
See, these books actually do address a lot of the common complaints. E.L. James seems aware of the genre's tropes and doesn't challenge them as a point, but doesn't fall into them either. Discussion and communication is an important theme, and a lot of these things are brought up between them in a way that a reader might want to discuss them with the character, ha!
For stupid, fin entertainment, they sure are easy to talk about in depth: This is a long-ass post, and after many e-mails written to my best friend analyzing what I was reading. And maybe that's what it is about these books: good or bad, they're just fun to talk about.
Most of all, I think people forget that romance/erotica are fantasies. It reads like a fantasy. When describing the plot to my best friend, she asked me, "This takes place in the real world, right?" Um. As much as any romance does? Am I glad I read them? Certainly. Even if just to understand the actual content, instead of gathering my information fourth-hand. And they were good for some fun, guilty pleasure entertainment. My life didn't alter, with delight or outrage. And it makes me sad, in a way, that I couldn't enjoy them on their own merits, without as much baggage as Christian himself comes with trailing behind the books. Four stars total.
A final note: It's hilariously obvious this started its life as Twilight AU fanfiction; the characters are so thinly disguised, it's laughable. I like Twilight, but I recognize its shortcomings readily. That said, I think Ana and Christian's relationship is so much healthier than Bella and Edward's. Ana can and does say no to Christian. Often. They communicate; it's actual an important theme of the books, as is consent. In that way, it eclipses the actual doormat that is Bella Swan.