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N.Y. Times Best Seller or 'Mommy Porn?'

Everyone's talking about the "Fifty Shades of Grey" book trilogy. Here's my review.

Have you read them yet? C’mon, you can tell me. Or maybe the better question -- Are you willing to admit that you have? 

Of course the books I’m alluding to are the erotic romance novels collectively dubbed the “Fifty Shades” trilogy -- “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.” Or, as many critics have come to derisively refer to the series -- a stash of “mommy porn.”

They’re written by British former television executive, E.L. James -- a married, middle-aged, somewhat dowdy and surprisingly (considering the adult content of her books) reticent, mother of two teenage boys. Currently, all three of her books sit atop (and have for weeks), the New York Times Best Seller List for fiction. 

The books are set in Seattle and focus on the highly charged relationship between a virginal, beautiful, recent college graduate named Anastasia “Ana” Steele and her young, debonair, more-established/experienced, Master of the Universe (the book’s original title) billionaire suitor named Christian Grey. He’s perfect in every way except for his sexual proclivities, which run dark and revolve around BDSM -- bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.

Throughout the first book, (which I read solely for research purposes for this piece, it goes without saying), Mr. Grey tries to charm the ingénue, Ms. Steele into becoming his "sub” (submissive sexual partner) to cater to his dominant ways. The book’s most notable feature, besides its abhorrent writing, is the explicit descriptions James prolifically employs to describe the intimate acts between the two main characters. And apparently readers -- especially middle-life women, for whom the book resonates with and was specifically written for --are eating this stuff up.

For the record, my fork won’t be going back for a second serving. Upon finishing the first of the trilogy, I felt rather underwhelmed. My reaction was, “Seriously, this is what all the hype’s about?!?” Unlike many, maybe even the majority who’ve partaken, I didn’t find the book romantic, sensual or charming. Instead, the descriptors I’d use include: degrading, depressing, sexist, pathetic, far-fetched, mischaracterizing, a step backwards for women. You’ve got the idea.  

I truly do not get the appeal of “Fifty Shades” and not because I am a book snob or prude. It just befuddles me that women are flocking to these novels and that the trilogy has incited such an outpouring of passion. But, never
one to rule out a differing opinion, I decided to seek input from an expert.

Sexual and relationship therapist, Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil’s explanation in a recent Yahoo! News article, stated, “Women are frequently burnt out, overworked, and have difficulty sleeping because of the stress. For this reason, they need guilty pleasures to help them stay more balanced. These books are a great alternative to stress eating or drinking; it's a way of fantasizing and over-correcting for the additional work they're doing. It's helping women who have been supermom to sublimate their feelings of overwork and burn out while catering to their need for sizzle, novelty, excitement, romance which is missing in many relationships. Who has the time?” 

Well, when put like that, I have to agree with much of what the good doctor has to say. However, the cheesetastic prose and subservient premise of “Fifty Shades” isn’t a salve that personally works for me. I will credit “Fifty Shades” with offering escapism and entertainment, but only because it’s so laughably banal and sophomoric. 

And with all of the verbal redundancy and repetition, I also think it has the makings for an excellent drinking game, provided one has such inclinations.  Readers could chug each time Ana references her “Inner Goddess” or every time Christian implores Ana to “stop biting her lip.” However, I caution you that if you do partake in the accompanying party game, you will probably wind up with cirrhosis by the end of the third chapter. 

There’s also an overabundance of Icarus-flying-too-close-to-the-sun
references. Considering Ana proclaims this visual at least six times in the first book, a reader could feel pleasantly buzzed just by responding to that marker alone. Don't forget Grey’s signature departure phrase -- “Laters, baby!” He must say it 50 times and purportedly, with each utterance, Ana’s heart maniacally flutters and she helplessly swoons 

Really, ladies, we’re acutally buying this crap?!?

Even the author herself acknowledges the poor quality of her workmanship. In a recent “Today Show” interview on NBC, James stated that she’s “not a great writer” and that she’s “very undisciplined” in her approach. She also describes the trilogy as, “midlife crisis writ large.”

Uh, you think?

It's so bad that Washington Post book critic Ron Charles couldn’t even bring himself to finish the first book. Per Charles, “Sex has never been so dull.”

All that aside, within a year of being published, James has already sold a quarter of a million books. And a movie deal -- reportedly valued at $5 million -- is in the works with Universal. Good for James. After all, those therapy bills for her two sons will get pretty hefty, I’m guessing. (How mortified are they do you think? And all this time they thought their mum only had "vanilla sex" twice. Carpool must be unbearable now.)

My green eyes and jaded cynicism aside, I do recognize that James and her trilogy attract many fans. For those of you who are enamored of her, she's appearing at 7 p.m. Friday at the Bethesda Barnes and Noble (4801 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda Md. 20814) for a book signing. A large crowd is anticipated, so arrive early.

Lastly, I’ll go out on a limb and offer one piece of advice for the fellas reading this. If you’re really looking to reignite the fires on the homefront, it’s actually very simple. Clean a toilet, change a diaper, throw a load of laundry in or empty the dishwasher -- spontaneously and without expecting a gold star in return. That is what women really find hot. And, it's far cheaper than whips and chains.

Natalie Ramm May 03, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Anastasia is the most unbelievable character ever. A good-looking 21-year-old that's never "really" been kissed nor been drunk. Come on! It makes sense in historical romance novels but not in 2011. I feel like I understand Kate's character better than Ana and Christian. Plus, isn't Kate the kind of character that women should idolize or want to be like? Strong, independent (though she does come from money), but not an ice-princess. She's clearly affected by the guy she likes (Elliot). I agree that the writing is repetitive. I'm only about 40% through this novel and I don't care to finish it--mostly because I can't personally empathize with Ana. But also because I don't find men like Grey attractive in the least bit.
Beth Jarvis May 03, 2012 at 04:59 PM
Thanks for commenting, Natalie. Sounds like you and I are on the same page. Maybe we should start our own book club?
Christopher H Lynt May 04, 2012 at 03:33 PM
These are 'romance novels' so...repetitive? Sure, I am tempted to say 'duh.' But then so are many enjoyable things, e.g., music - try the Beatles' "Hey Jude" on for size. Might one point out that very often erotic activity itself involves repetition? In the right mood, it can be enjoyable, not in the mood, boring. Unbelievable? Yes, and again, I hear a song, this time saying "tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies..." To attain the desired effect, doesn't most erotica require a certain degree of suspension of disbelief? So a male reviewer found a romance novel so dull he couldn't even finish it? Big surprise, eh? I admit, it is a genre that I have never understood or found enjoyable with my male-wired-brain...I always assumed it was my Y-chromosome impatiently demanding some action, instead of the seemingly eternal journey to arousal in chapter after chapter after... So, I think a serious review of this type of literature (perhaps "litter" would be more apt?) misses the whole point - this is meant to be read late at night, perhaps while sitting on a couch in front of a fireplace chowing down a gallon of Rocky-Road ice cream, a guilty pleasure, without much guilt, for ladies who would never even consider watching an X-rated movie. But I enjoyed reading your review, nonetheless! Laters, baby! LOL
Beth Jarvis May 04, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Christopher, it is great to have a male perspective on this, especially a funny male perspective! Thanks for commenting and for your valid points. Now, go empty the dishwasher! :)

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