What’s the Big Deal?: Fifty Shades of Grey Live-Blogging Edition, Chapter 1

I love romance novels.

I’m not being sarcastic. I love romance novels, honestly. I don’t care who calls them trashy or smutty or non-literary. Romance novels are awesome! If done correctly, they are uplifting and entertaining. While they’re not usually full of deep themes or social commentary, good romance novels can help readers explore what they want in a relationship. Sure, there are some shallow works of crap in the romance genre, but show me a genre without the same problem. For every great author, there are ten two-bit hacks. A great romance novel is incredibly difficult to write. It’s all about believability. The reader knows the formula going in, and what’s more, the ending is no secret, either. If the author can’t create likable, believable characters with important, believable problems and an interesting, believable getting-together story, the book’s going to suck.

Anyway, suffice to say I have read a lot of romance novels. A LOT, people. Bear in mind that whatever I say about Fifty Shades of Grey (or 50SoG, thank you, Rachel), it is coming from someone who loves the romance genre, believes in its core values, and wants only good things for it.

Now, the disclaimer: I understand this book is full of whips and chains. It’s all about the BDSM. Me? Not so much. I have never found BDSM sexy or intriguing. I don’t like pain, I don’t like hurting others, and I don’t want to worry about the balance of power in my sex life. My wonky hormones complicate things enough. I don’t want to worry about safe words and how to tie a good square knot, too. However, if this book is truly good, then I should believe in the characters, believe in their relationship, and believe that whatever they do works for their relationship, and that should make it seem sexy.

So, 50SoG, here is your test: Can you win over a passionate romance reader who thinks handcuffs are for felons and riding crops are for dictatorial movie directors?

Fifty Shades of Grey

by E. L. James

The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House, $9.99 Nook book, ISBN-10 1612130291

Some facts about this book:

  • The original draft starred Bella and Edward in a BDSM homage to Twilight.
  • The original title was Master of the Universe (He-Man does love him some leather cuffs.)
  • The author is a British woman.
  • Popularity as a self-published title led to legitimate publication, and you can even buy a hard copy now.
  • Everyone and her mother are reading this.
  • Some libraries are banning it, not just on grounds of all the sexy sex, but because the writing is poor.

So, this should be fun! Let’s get started.

Chapter 1: Our Heroes

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go chapter-by-chapter, but I thought that since Chapter 1 seems to set a few themes for the book, I would let it have its very own post.

The book opens with a traditional ploy: Heroine unfavorably appraises her appearance  in a mirror so that the audience a) can picture her and b) knows how gosh darn human she is, with her bad hair day and whatnot. So how much description do we get? Eye color and size (“too big”), hair color, skin color. The end. Height? Weight? Facial features? Unimportant. Just picture Kristen Stewart with blue eyes and you have Anastasia Steele.

With a name like Anastasia Steele, you’d think she’d be out dispatching double agents and disarming bombs at the British Embassy. No, she studies literature at WSU Vancouver while sponging off of  living with her wealthy best friend, Katherine Kavanaugh. (E. L. James went to the Soap Opera School of Character Names.) Katherine Kavanaugh is rich, gorgeous, talented, ambitious, intelligent, and a slew of other adjectives. Why she’s hanging out with Ana, who has no talent or self-esteem, isn’t explored. I’d like to petition for a change of heroine.

Kate edits the newspaper at their college and is supposed to do an interview with enigmatic mogul Christian Grey, but thanks to a terrible cold, she sends Ana instead. Ana doesn’t work on the school paper. Why wouldn’t Kate call around to the rest of the staff? Why would she ask Ana, who has no experience?

Basically, because Ana’s a doormat and does whatever Kate says, then passive-aggressively huffs about it in her internal monologue while driving Kate’s Mercedes way too fast.

So Ana zips off to Seattle to meet our hero. She arrives at an office building (which she describes far more thoroughly than she described herself) staffed by a bevy of beautiful blonds. All the women are so beautiful, in fact, that she wonders if she is in Stepford. Hm, why are all the women so perfect? Could they be…vampires?! Oh, no. Not in this former work of Twilight fanfic. No vampires here.

After ruminating on her shabby appearance and projecting her own feelings of inadequacy onto a receptionist who is just trying to be nice to her, Ana is sent to a meeting room which she describes as though she’s writing about it for a real-estate ad (“spacious,” “floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Seattle skyline”), where she quietly freaks out because, oh no, she has to meet a stranger, and worst of all, she doesn’t know how old he is or what he looks like! Ana seems to have some backwards form of social anxiety disorder that causes her to prefer large groups of people to one-on-one conversations. Actually, she’d rather sit alone and read classic British novels because her own species makes her nervous.

After a dull wait in which the various blonds get Ana a glass of water (a major event), Bella Ana finally trips and falls headfirst into the presence of Christian Grey.

When the heroine meets the hero for the first time in a romance novel, the reader also meets him for the first time. The author has one chance to lock in an immediate verdict of Grade A Stud in the mind of the reader, one chance to convey a powerful attraction between the characters. Pulling punches isn’t advisable. We’re talking about building an epic love in the space of 300-400 pages. Go big or go home. It’s time for the heroine to be noticing facial features, especially any expressions that give her a clue as to his personality or emotion at the moment. It’s time for her to think about his beautiful mouth, his surprisingly long eyelashes, his aristocratic nose, or, you know, whatever, as long as she’s impressed. It’s time for her to check out his amazing physique and notice that he’s big and muscular, but with the grace of a prowling tiger whom she hopes will be eating her within the next 3-5 chapters.

Ana’s thoughts upon first seeing Christian Grey: “So young — and attractive, very attractive.”

Um…what? Very attractive? That’s it? Where are the rock-hard thighs, the chiseled cheeks, the scruffy-sexy 5 o’clock shadow, the…anything? Seriously, that’s all we get except “tall” and hair/eye color. Oh, and he’s wearing a nice suit. “Tall attractive man in nice business suit.” That’s not even enough to pick a guy out of a lineup! And do not start with the “she’s letting the reader fill in the blanks” argument people use to excuse Bella’s lack of personality in Twilight. You will not convince me that E. L. James wanted us to each imagine our perfect hero to keep us interested. I doubt any reader ever quit on a romance novel because the hero wasn’t her type physically. It’s all about what the heroine finds attractive, because ideally the reader will empathize with her and fall in love with the hero as seen through her eyes. In this case, we’re not getting much of a look.

Okay, so the initial meeting fizzled. Well, on to their initial conversation, where their personalities can shine and their chemistry can sparkle!

Or, you know, not. Let me distill the conversation for you. Quotation marks are direct quotes, the rest is me paraphrasing:

Ana: Why are you so successful?

Christian: I have a great staff and I am great at managing and developing them.

Ana: “Maybe you’re just lucky.”

(He sounds like he’s actually a very good manager.)

Christian: No, I have a great staff. And I’m great at managing them. And developing them.

Ana: You sound like a control freak.

(No, he sounds like a good manager…)

Christian: Power comes from telling yourself you’re in control.

Ana: “Do you feel that you have immense power?”

Christian: 40,000 people work for me and can’t pay their bills without their jobs, so…yes…

Ana: What do you do for fun?

Christian: “I have varied interests, Miss Steele… Very varied.”

Who says “very varied”? How did “very varied” make it into publication? HOW?

And blah blah, he likes to fly, he likes figuring out how stuff works, he’s interested in feeding the poor, blah blah… OH, and he tells her proudly that many people would say he doesn’t have a heart.

See this red flag?

Red flag

Guess what? Ana doesn’t.

Then the interview veers into personal territory. Kate’s questions cover the fact that he was adopted, which he doesn’t want to talk about. Ana also has to ask about whether he’s sacrificed family life for business, which he also doesn’t want to talk about. At this point, a smart interviewer changes the subject. I mean, she’s not out to get a major scoop, and it’s Kate’s interview, not hers. But no, she barges right ahead and asks if he’s gay, not even reading the question to herself before she poses it to him. He gets irritated. “No, Anastasia, I’m not.” Not even a “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I mean, he’s an eligible “very attractive” bachelor who never has a romantic partner along in public. He could be gay. He could be straight. He could be a Styrofoam fetishist. I’m not saying the question is appropriate, but the curiosity is reasonable. You know, the whole Jane Austen “man with fortune must need wife” thing.

Then he cancels his next meeting so he can learn more about her. Or, more accurately, so he can try to convince her to intern with his company, since she has no plans after graduation. No plans, in this economy? Gosh, her ambition and practicality stun me. Of course, he thinks she’d be a perfect fit at his telecommunications company, what with her literature degree and all. This is in NO WAY a thinly-veiled attempt to hire her for the sole purpose of sexually harassing her. Once again:

Red flag

Red flag.

Then he falls all over himself to get her coat for her so he can briefly grope her shoulders (nothing’s as sexy as a shoulder squeeze, right?), and she is totally befuddled by his behavior, because of course she is plain and dull and clumsy and boring and no one could ever love her, and he is, well, kind of a jerk, actually, but hot! And rich! Clearly he cannot be interested in her. And so, with another assertion that he “really is very, very good-looking” and a reminder that she finds attractiveness a frightening quality in a man, Anastasia takes the elevator out of his life forever.

Until, of course, chapter 2.

Although this book is supposed to have been extensively altered from its Twilight roots for publication, let’s review.

Ways in which our heroine is like Bella so far:

  • Self-absorbed doormat
  • Loves British literature
  • Hails from a broken home
  • Pale with dark hair
  • Clumsy as all get-out
  • Totally naive
  • Drives ancient, unreasonably beloved vehicle
  • Weirdly low self-esteem, considering how snobby she is

Ways in which Ana is unlike Bella:

  • Ummm…..eye color?

Coming soon: More shades of Grey! Hopefully the spanking is coming up soon, because so far, this is one boring slog.

Handcuffs

I understood there would be bondage. What’s with all the talky-talk?

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