50 Shades of Perfect

book coverSo, there are these books out there that this woman apparently wrote and started selling out of her car boot (she’s British…it was a boot…right?).  These books have been WIDELY popular among a fairly specific demographic (middle aged white women).  Okay, to say that they’ve been widely popular is a bit of an understatement.  These books have been voraciously consumed.  Rather than selling the books from her boot (you know it’s funny), the author and her books have been picked up by Random House and what began as a cult sensation has been a global wave.  All the cool kids had PSY.  All their moms had Christian Grey.

What? Who?  Oh, yeah.  He’s the male lead in the series of books E. L. James.  I’m not going to spend time talking more about James or Grey because either you’ve read the books and know about the characters, or you can do what any red-blooded human can do and search Wikipedia.  (Oh no, you didn’t!  Oh yes, I did!).

Anyway, if I’m not going to summarize the whole deal, what the hell am I blathering on about?  Well, here’s the thing.  I read the 1st two books of this trilogy.  I read them in one weekend.  It was, to say the least, a definite experience.  Obviously, they didn’t put me off my literary feed.  But, here’s the thing – maybe if I’d read a little LESS voraciously, I wouldn’t have noticed.  Maybe if I was a little less critical of what I’m reading, I wouldn’t have cared.  But I DO read voraciously and I DO read critically and I DO demand some semblance of believability.  I mean, I’ve read nearly every thing ever written by Tolkien and Lewis and (yeah, I’ll mention her in the same sentence) Rowling.  Even if there was a fantastical setting and made-up character types, it was the believability in the “person-hood” of those characters that “kept it real.”  In the most outstanding character, there was weakness and vulnerability and that made them stronger and more applicable.

Okay – there I went…off on that tangent again.  Back to Mr. Grey and his 50 shades.  Btw, if you don’t know (I didn’t), the 50 shades refers to just how fucked up he is.  He’s 50 shades of well…yeah (I think the word a lot and say it fairly regularly but always softly – it’s a harsh word).

There are no two ways about it.  These books are sexy as hell.  In my former library, we put hot pink dots on the spines of those novels that were hot pink dot worthy.  I’d say these definitely deserve the hot pink dot.  And, then, that’s where the whole thing breaks down.  Don’t get me wrong.  Sex is very entertaining.  I mean, look around.  It’s EVERYWHERE in EVERYTHING.  We, as a species, are often driven by it in some pretty scary ways.  But, whatever, these books are sexy but without the sex, they’re nothing.  When I’d finished the second book, Fifty Shades Darker, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to read the third one and still get to work on Monday.  This break allowed me to assess what I’d read, and the more I thought about it, the more pissed I got.  So, I made a list (it’s a thing I do – probably one reason I ended up being a librarian…one of many reasons).  Here’s my list of things that pissed me off about these books (I’m using a bullet list so that you don’t assume one pissed me off more or less than the next).

  • Everything in these books works out too predictably.  What?  There’s a crazy person?  I’ll just talk her back into sanity.  Oh?  She broke into the apartment where your friend was staying brandishing a gun?  That’s okay.  He wasn’t there because he went out drinking with friends.
  • Everything in these books is TOO perfect.  Even the awfulness is perfect.  What?  The main male character is messed up?  Completely understandable.  His mother was a drug addict that was beaten and imprisoned and died in front of him.  Her pimp used him as an ashtray.  You can forgive his semi-plausible need to dominate his surroundings.

Wait – let’s take a short break from the list.  You see, I get that we often read things as an escape from our own realities.  We WANT to be immersed in a different time and place and become a different person.  THAT is where the author comes in creating characters in whom we can immerse ourselves.  Make no mistake – this is why ensemble casting and supporting characters matter.  They not only make a text or script more complete.  They give the reader a variety of places to inhabit.  Back to the list.

  • There is no place in this book for the reader to inhabit.  All the characters are too trussed up (a phrase used far too many times) and just too contrived.

Okay, list making is fun, but here’s the list that I really made – all the reasons that I wanted to burn these books in the end.  No, it wasn’t out of censorship.  Don’t worry.  If I burned one, two, or 100 copies, there are PLENTY left.  Here are the things that sold these books and made me hate them (although I do appreciate that this is just my personal opinion).

Christian Grey is:

  • The main male character (duh)
  • Gorgeous (though I’m not sure exactly what he looks like…it’s a book after all…and that’s not where the detail was spent)
  • Rich
  • Tormented
  • Philanthropic
  • In therapy (oh….so he KNOWS he’s tormented)
  • Fashionable
  • Respected
  • Adopted
  • LOVED by his adopted family
  • Educated
  • Young (27 if I remember correctly)
  • Global Minded
  • Surrounded by staff that adore him
  • Apparently he also can’t walk into a room without every man wanting to be him and every woman wanting to be with him.
  • A licensed helicopter pilot; but,
  • He owns private jets
  • A sailboat that he can sail; but,
  • A staff to sail it when he doesn’t want to take the helm
  • Okay…seriously…I could go on.  Let’s not.  Oh wait…one more
  • Apparently he also has a very impressive penis.  It’s size is mentioned quite often.  Like REALLY often.  But that may be because of the following.

Anastasia Steele is:

  • The main female lead.  You get it?  He’s grey…and she’s steel?  Haha!  Oh…yeah.  Okay.  Moving on.
  • Just graduated from college with some type of English degree.  Okay.  Right there.  Stop laughing.  It’s not a useless degree.  Per se.  Anyway, she’s graduated.  Yay!
  • Living with a rich female roommate.  Her rich roommate has also graduated (just) and they are moving to live in the middle of Seattle in an apartment purchased by the rich roommate’s parents.
  • Desired by nearly every male person with whom she comes in contact; but, she’s
  • Oblivious.  She’s apparently gorgeous, but doesn’t know it.
  • Unconcerned with outward appearances.  Her only nice clothes are the ones she borrows from her rich roommate.
  • The daughter of a serial bride.  Her mom is on her fourth husband.  The 1st one is dead, the 2nd one still loves her, the 3rd one was a wash, and the 4th one seems like a keeper.
  • Living far from home.
  • A virgin – at least to start with
  • Clumsy
  • Um….there’s more, but this is boring.

Are you catching my drift here?  What’s unique about this?  You have the perfect set-up, the perfect characters, the perfect everything.  Yeah, there’s some deviance in here.  That’s part of the whole 50 shades thing.  I get that.  But, beyond the shock and sex value (okay, it’s not actually all that shocking for anyone other than Anastasia…or Ana.  I think we’ve gotten to the level where I can call her Ana), these books are like window dressing.  Harlequin has been doing this for years and doing it better.

So, 50 shades.  I dunno.  I’m not reading the last one.  The spell was broken and smarter brain cells prevailed.  If, however, you just want something to salivate over, not engage any of those higher thinking skills, hide from your children and possibly read with your spouse (if they don’t want to use higher thinking skills either), then these are perfect.  Ugh.  That word again.

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