So many readers have recommended this book to me. SO MANY. It has a 4.49 average after 1,728 ratings on GoodReads and 4.5 stars after 100 reviews on Amazon. Readers on Twitter have told me how much they adore this book, how they love the hero, love the story, love every one of the 200k pages of this book (which ends on a cliffhanger and continues in volume two, Fifty Shades Darker).
Alas, this book didn't work for me. I kept trying, and going back to it more than I normally would because of the number of people who adore this book and talk about it so reverently. Unfortunately for me, I found it to be melancholy and meandering, and the heroine narrator is so maudlin and wimpy I grew more and more irritated with her and with the story and had to stop. It's amazing how powerful a first-person narrator can be – and what a turn off it is when you don't like her.
Anna Steele is a senior at a university who is a last-minute substitute for her roommate on the interview of a lifetime. Said roommate is hellasick and is unable to make a meeting with one Christian Grey, CEO of his own company, a big donor to the university, richer than all the really wealthy people (this guy can take the entire 1% out to dinner and not feel the pain) and rather unreachable for interviews with college students. Christian is instantly taken with Anna, and though he warns her away from him, she's fascinated with him, and they do the dance as old as romance, which usually totally works for me, to the tune of “I don't want to like you but I can't stop thinking about your hair, dammit!” (Y'all know how much I love that song.)
The difference in age and finance and place in life is one thing, but as Anna and Christian become closer, she learns that he is a dominant, and his relationships are all dominant/submissive. Ultimately he overcomes his hesitation about getting involved with her, and invites her to participate after many email messages, a very specific contract negotiation, and much rumination on the part of Anna.
This story originated, according to the folks who recommended it to me, as Twilight fanfic, and while some readers have said they don't see the similarities, I do, and they're part of what I didn't like. The story is narrated by the heroine, Anna, and all the minutiae and self-indulgent navel gazing of Twilight is present in this book, too.
So in a way, if you substitute BDSM for sparkly vampirism, and the willingness of both parties to become involved for the whole leaving-Bella-a-lot part of the Twilight saga, you'll get a glimpse of the dynamics of this book – and the elements that really stopped me from engaging with both characters.
My problems with the book rested on two main points:
1. The hero read so young, unrealistically young for me – almost like a 17 year old trying to live a 35 year old's life, like one of those movies that become popular every 5 or 9 years where an adult and a child switch bodies and hilarity and hijinks ensue, possibly with a song from either Nickelback or Smashmouth, or both.
2. Anna narrates and ruminates and navel gazes and ponders her toes and oh, my gosh, when a POV drives you bonkers, it's really hard to enjoy anything about it.
The best parts were the email messages between Anna and Christian, especially when he changed his signature file to joke about whatever it was they were talking about. Those were the moments of life in the story that I really liked, and everything between them was just a slog through verbal molasses for me. The email messages were the only time when Christian voices his own thoughts, and served as the only parts that were his voice instead of Anna's, and I welcomed that because Anna drove me nuts.
Also, Anna finds Christian intimidating in person, so in the email exchanges you see pieces of her personality that were a departure from her worrying, cloying, wobbly narration, and I found that plenty entertaining – but the email exchanges were too few for me to really continue.
One point that I appreciated, though it wasn't enough to keep me going, was in an email from Christian to Anna:
“In Dom/sub relationships, it is the sub that has all the power. That's you. I'll repeat this – you are the one with all the power. Not I. In the boathouse you said no. I can't touch you if you say no – that's why we have an agreement – what you will and won't do.”
This description of power is something I wish I saw more of in BDSM romances, because the submissive is the one who has the power to stop everything, and that sub's permission is what allows everything to happen. It's a puzzling and fascinating inversion of power: the one who accepts a role of having little power actually has all of it. But in this novel, I wasn't tempted by the narrator to continue much farther past this point.
The level of detail and the density of the text – by which I mean THERE ARE A LOT OF WORDS IN THIS BOOK – just bored the crap out of me. Anna's narration was irritating, and I couldn't get past it to enjoy the story. I know so many readers love the hero and think he's up there with Darcy and Roarke and Jamie Fraser, but I couldn't see what had people so enthralled. From the deep perspective of Anna, who I found relentlessly self absorbed, I didn't see what these readers saw. I just found myself bored and skimming and ultimately choosing something else to read.