50 Shades of Grey: to Read or Not to Read?
I can’t recommend that you read E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. On the other hand, I can’t recommend that you not read it. Wait, what? How can you recommend reading it AND not reading it? Here’s how: the books aren’t bad, but at the same time, they’re awful. 50 Shades has some definite flaws; however, it has positives that balance the negatives. In this review, I’ll address the good, the bad, and the ugly of 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels.
First, the good. The story’s character development is quite appealing. Christian Grey is a round, dynamic character. In the beginning of the tale, he is emotionally closed off because of psychological damage due to sexual abuse as a teen and parental abandonment as a child. You have to admit, those are good reasons for mental issues. As a result of his emotional trauma, Grey is jealous, possessive, and controlling. These are things we do not want to see in a mate, and this seems to be one of the chief complaints of many reviewers. Over the course of the books, though, he allows himself to heal and learns to accept love. While his possessiveness and need to control others’ lives is troubling, he does learn to let his loved ones be independent by trusting them not to hurt him. That is enormous progress; by the end of the series, Grey is emotionally healthier, and therefore a much better person & spouse.
Anastasia Steele doesn’t grow quite as much as Grey, but her character development is, nonetheless, important. She learns important grown-up lessons, like standing up for her own needs. In the beginning of the story, she is hopelessly naïve. In the course of the story, she learns to assert herself and not let Grey completely control her life. For example, when she leaves Grey at the end of the first novel, she is standing up for her independence—even though she should have told him to stop, at least she knows that she can’t relinquish her autonomy entirely. Steele’s most important function in the story is that she is the driving force behind Grey’s growth. Because of his desire (and eventually love) for Steele, Grey must learn to trust. Because he must learn to trust, he has to let go of his past. Because he let’s go of the past, Grey’s emotional wounds heal. All because of Steele. Not because of her actions, but because of her existence. I could argue that this points to a girl power theme. (I won’t, because I don’t think that Steele grows enough, but it’s possible.)
I’ve established that James’ character development in the 50 Shades series is good. Now I’ll address the bad. The plot is mediocre. The underlying premise is good (albeit somewhat trite): injured hero is rescued by tenacious heroine. He heals; she learns. They all live happily ever after. The only difference between this and the standard fairy tale motif is the male/female role reversal. I enjoy retells of the classics, especially when they have a fun twist (Shrek and Tangled are a couple of my favorite animated movies, and E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess series is one of my all-time favorites. Spoofs of fairy tales always grab my reading attention.) In this respect, 50 Shades is okay. Going beyond the fairytale theme, though, the story is weak. My biggest complaint about the plot is that it is repetitive. I could swear that James repeated—verbatim!—entire passages throughout the books. It seems like she would copy and paste sections when she couldn’t be bothered with either editing them out (the best option) or varying them (not as good as eliminating the chaff, but better than just repeating). I don’t have any examples handy, and I don’t want to reread the books to find any, but if you do choose to read the trilogy, you’ll see what I mean. On the topic of repetition, in the sex scenes—one of the big draws for so many who love the books—there’s similarly little variety. If you read one sex scene, you can skip the other 5 bazillion. By my estimation, half of the story is made up of sex scenes. James could have cut many hundreds of pages by leaving some to the reader’s imagination. I feel that a story (just like an essay) should be like a skirt: long enough to cover the important bits, but short enough to keep it interesting. In this respect, the author failed. James seems not to trust her readers to do the work of using their imagination as they read. There’s nothing wrong with explicit descriptions, but there’s a problem with the same exact explicitness over and over and over again.
Having addressed the good and the bad, I’m ready to tackle the ugly. The writing is execrable. It made me cringe! James’ use of language is an affront to readers & writers alike. A few of her sins on this front are: poor word choice, lack of variety in description (I know I addressed that in the previous paragraph), punctuation & grammar errors, and lack of figurative language. She could have saved herself a few demerits by using some good similies and metaphors in her descriptions. In one of the books, Steele “murmurs soundlessly” (or maybe she “mutters wordlessly. I don’t remember which, and I feel no need to subject myself to rereading the whole trilogy just to jog my memory). My problem with this is that it is physically impossible. The nature of a murmur is that it is a sound (likewise, the nature of muttering is that it contains words). Added to this, James was either not motivated enough or not creative enough to describe thoughtfully. Here is where a few metaphors would have come in handy. Grey has a pair of jeans that he wears “that way.” What does “that way” mean? Is it appearance? Attitude? I don’t know, because James didn’t write the story such that I, as a reader, could figure it out. While I do feel that a writer needs to let the reader use imagination, vague or nonexistent descriptions are taking that too far. James flipped where she should have included description and where she should have cut words. So, there it is: the ugly is poor language use—the ultimate writer’s sin.
Should you read 50 Shades of Grey or not? I can’t tell you. All I can say is that the story has it’s good points in character development, but it also has bad & ugly points in plot and language. Pick your poison: enjoy the characters while being subjected to uncreative plot and lousy writing, or skip the crap and miss the good character development.