Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James – An Analysis

So…Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’ll admit I never thought I’d end up reading it. Though curious, BDSM is not my thing. However, you can’t go far on the Internet or even in real life (my GYN of all people) without hearing about it. Half the people are ripping it down; half the people adore this book. Still, that wasn’t enough to make me read Fifty Shades of Grey.

The turning point for me was when a market-savvy friend wanted me to read it to analyze what elements were working. She gave me the whole series for that purpose. I dragged my feet, not willing to go out of my comfort zone, but then she passed away, and I started, thinking it a penance and a tribute to recognizing she was right about staying on top of the market. Oddly, this reminds me of my mom watching the world cup in Greece, not because she loved soccer but because everyone was talking about it and she didn’t want to be out of the loop.

For that reason, as this book is probably one of the more talked about ones in current times (and maybe ever), I’m throwing away my spoilers avoidance. Here’s your warning. What follows is going to be more detailed than usual, and contain references to explicit content, so continue at your own risk.

I recommend Fifty Shades of Grey wholeheartedly. I never imagined I’d say that, but there you have it. Does this mean my discomfort with BDSM (which honestly I’m not sure what it stands for because there are two possible “S” components) has vanished? Absolutely not. To my mind, this was a very misrepresented book.

Let’s start with the hardest part, the BDSM.

Does it exist in the book? Yes. Is it a main part of the book. Sort of. Would anyone in that community be happy with the portrayal? I’d guess not. Christian Grey is not comfortable or happy with himself or what he sees as his deviance. As Ana would say, he’s fifty shades of fucked up.

First of all, there are only about 3-4 scenes way late in the book that probably qualify, the majority of them involving a little bondage and spanking. There is one big scene where Grey beats Ana for real, but it’s not sexual in portrayal, though it’s supposed to be, and has consequences that are not the orgasmic kind. The trick for me (and why I kept reading) is that the BDSM aspects (or at least the pain as pleasure aspects) are glossed over.

So, does that mean the book is all talk and no action? On the BDSM side, pretty much, but on the sensual, sexual side, absolutely not. There are a ton of “vanilla” sex scenes that are explicit and provoking, and there’s a lot of sexual tension running through the book almost from the very start. Some of that is tied up (no pun intended but accepted since it’s there) in the dominance/submissive lifestyle Christian Grey has adopted, but none of it is that simple.

Which brings me to the next element: the writing. I’ve heard endless criticism of E.L. James’ writing style, even from people who liked the book. I read for story. I notice writing style and proofing errors, but if the story is strong, I dismiss them. That said, her writing style is not that off-putting at all. There are proofing errors, and there are points when her writing style threw me out of the story, but most of it worked very well.

The book is written in first person present tense, a point of view (POV) that’s not my favorite, but which I got sucked into with only occasional hiccups. A lot of people refuse to read that POV, but there’s more to her style than just the POV. It’s a blunt, straightforward, no thrills telling. It’s almost stream of consciousness in its style.

Later in the book, he gives her a Blackberry. There are inserted email conversations which could break the flow easily. Instead, the short messages are full of double meanings, their subject lines and signatures are wonderful, and it really speaks to the playful and suggestive aspect of their relationship. It’s a neat way to expose that side of them.

Are there weaknesses? Sure. There are repeated phrases that are supposed to be cutesy but end up just being overdone (like the overuse of “fifty shades”). Some parts go into more graphic detail than is absolutely necessary, mainly moving body parts in “vanilla” sex, and there is a huge emphasis on food and eating.

So why do I recommend this book?

For the story. This is an intense, in your face love story between two not so perfect people who are learning about themselves as they go. Sure, Christian has all the trappings of a poor little rich boy, but that’s not even a fraction of his true story. And Ana has her own issues with self-esteem and self-worth that make their discovery a mutual one.

Yes, there is a lot of sexual discovery and exploration as well.

Ana begins the story as a virgin who has never been kissed (part of the reason for her self-esteem issues), and Christian as a deviant who only wants women within the strict rules of a dominant/submissive relationship with both an NDA and relationship contract. Love makes Ana more willing to expand her sexual horizons, while it makes Christian more able to expand his emotional ones.

These people are not cardboard cutouts. This is not about a rich guy throwing money at a sweet young thing who has no personality for the purposes of playing around in the bedroom. This is the story of a stubborn, argumentative young woman who meets a haunted young man who has to control everything and never lets anyone close unless he can command their every breath. He doesn’t understand what compels him to her. She’s everything he has no business touching. But he has to have her, not in a possession way but in a full-on obsession. All he knows is that she fills some empty part of him that he doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, she can’t give him what she’s sure he wants, but can’t walk away either. Darker emotions of self-hate, jealousy, and doubt battle with the brighter moments of love, lust, and humor to suck the reader in.

It’s a delicate balancing act as they explore who they are together and how far they’re willing to go to make it work. Compelling, absorbing, emotional, and yes, tantalizing. Besides, James mastered the cliffhanger ending hands down, and got me to start the second book without a pause even though that kind of shenanigans usually drives me nuts.

So, bottom line, if you’re looking for something that is all whips and chains and sex as the layer over pain to make pleasure, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for something that’s sex scene after sex scene with no messy human complications, this isn’t it. But if you’re willing to take a walk on the wild side, brush the edges of kinky sex, in favor of a deep, complicated story of growth and history with an exploration of limits, both emotional and sexual, I think Fifty Shades of Grey delivers. There were some places I skimmed to maintain my comfort zone, but they were short and few. Mostly, I was rooting for Christian and Ana to find some way to the happiness they both deserve.

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6 Responses to Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James – An Analysis

  1. Shawn Tyrrell says:

    Margaret: i have not read the book because of sexual deviant content but, because of your analysis, i will read it. Thanks, your cousin, Shawn

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Oh, scary. Influencing people…

      You’ll have to skim a bit, but if you like stories about people with real psychological mazes, I think you’ll find something to enjoy here. Come back and tell me what you think. I get that it’s not for everyone, but I sure thought it wouldn’t be for me.

  2. Wow! I expected to enjoy your customary excellence in analysis, but I certainly didn’t expect you to say this!

    Thank you. You’ve opened my eyes. I don’t know if I’ll read it, but at least if I don’t it won’t be out of ignorance.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      You’re preaching to the choir here, David. I started it as an obligation, almost looking for the excuse to put it down. Instead, I found myself making excuses to keep reading. Very different than my impression of what it would be.

  3. Texanne says:

    Thanks for that analysis, Margaret. I’m so sorry that you lost your friend. When it comes to motives for reading books, the death of a loved one is the most painful.

    I just NEVER read best sellers. My time and money are limited, and if everybody else in the world is giving time and money to this particular author, I’ll just give mine to someone a bit less celebrated and rewarded. Nothing against the best sellers, just not my party. I’m content not to step into the loop.

    The story sounds rather like 75% of romances: he wants casual sex, can’t understand why his response to THIS girl is different. She’s wary, can’t understand why she’s so drawn to him. Gotta give James props for amping up the psychological/sexual power.

    The Neil Simon play, The Odd Couple, is about Neil’s brother Danny and a guy Danny tried to room with after both of their divorces. I knew Danny slightly, and he’s not someone I enjoy much. Neil took a compulsively neat control freak (Danny) and a messy guy (the friend) and strung them out to the extremes: The MOST compulsively neat control freak and the MOST messy guy. Sounds as if James has applied the same method, but with different psychological issues, and for different effect.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful analysis. :)TX

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Yr welcome. And yes, I understand that approach. Honestly, for me, it’s about the reading. I put my money toward the people who entertain me, whether they’re just starting out, or they’ve already hit best seller, as have a bunch of the folks I started reading back when they were on their first book. On the other hand, this started out as a learning exercise, not a fun read. It just became a fun one because of the way it’s put together.

      I agree the technique has similarities to The Odd Couple, though not so much that they’re in opposition as how the perceptions are in opposition.

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