Book Review

50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James


Title: Fifty Shades of Grey
Author: E.L. James
Publication Info: The Writer's Coffee Shop 2011
ISBN: 978-1612130286
Genre: Contemporary Romance

The cover is a black/white image of a tie, close up on the knot.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.

This book is available from Amazon | BN



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  1. Interesting. I’m among the lovers of the book but do appreciate your perspective. I tend to read rather quickly so that may be what kept me going through the slogg-ish parts. Anna is a ridiculous navel gazer. It’s ultimately the way they negotiate their relationship (which is what we all really do in life, imo) that makes me love this book, and it’s sequel.

  2. Barbara W. says:

    I haven’t read or watched any Twilight so I have no clue on how it works/looks like any fanfic.  I ignored the whole business with his age not matching up with his fortune and job because, well, I do that a lot when I read.  Really, how many billionaire playboys are out there having unprotected sex with their mousy secretaries either?  I know, it’s a different scale, but there are some things I just tune out.

    Ana was quite the navel-gazer and she gave me such a headache with her “I want you, I think you’re warped and creepy, stay away from me, no I need you,” all the time.  I totally agree with what a lot of people have said as well, that these two books could have been tightened up and made into one pretty easily – there’s a lot of back and forth that needed to be cut.  I liked the same things you did too – the email and text exchanges and some of the more technical D/s-speak that I wish authors would get right. 

    I haven’t had any time to re-read them so I don’t know how well they’ll stand up to that test, but the first time I read them, I liked Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, even though they were flawed.

  3. Jim Lynch says:

    While it’s impressive that they got the dom-sub power dynamic right (doms aren’t rapists, which means they understand that no means no), the rest sounds pretty damn boring.  It’s always both impressive and sad when a book manages to be kinky and boring at the same time.

  4. Jim, you made me laugh with that one: “it’s both impressive and sad when a book manages to be kinky and boring at the same time.” Yes, yes, it is. And it happens more than you might think in romance….

    Sorry to derail, I’ve never read these and probably won’t (not so into moderns, especially not ones with naive heroines), but I had to giggle at the above…carry on! 🙂

  5. Bernie says:

    WWWEEELLL I did like both books. and bought them. Maybe because I didn’t read Twilight I did didn’t get the connection. They were so different from anything I have ever read. So will I buy no 3, I don’t know. But love the new and improved site. You are on my favs and stop by every day!

  6. SB Sarah says:

    Yes – that was exactly my problem, Jim. It was kinky and boring at the same time.

    And Barbara, you said it so well. Anna was very much all about the “I want you, I think you’re warped and creepy, stay away from me, no I need you,” lather, rinse, repeat.

  7. Elle says:

    I’ve just tried reading the sample on Amazon, and already, I can tell I wouldn’t be able to get through it. The writing just seems… I know it’s unfair to judge on such a short amount, but it’s a bad sign when you’re already skimming after just a few pages. I hate purple prose and appreciate minimalism, so this writing style might seem perfect for anyone like me, but it just feels like the equivalent of listening to an actor who sounds as though they’re reading their lines in a monotone voice. There’s no heart to the language. I don’t believe her pain. Maybe if I read more of the book, my opinion would change, but I have no motivation to do so based on the excerpt.

    One thing I do like is the idea of the theme of dominance and submission, not necessarily in actual BDSM terms, but where there’s almost an ‘atmosphere’ of it in the way the couple interacts. The best example I can think of is Dirty by Megan Hart. If anyone has any similar recs, I’d love to know.

  8. vp says:

    I have to say I agree with most of what you felt about the book.  I have had trouble finishing the first one.  I appreciate the angsty intensity, but the immaturity of both the hero and the heroine just ruined the story for me.  Both sound like they belong in something on the level of Twilight.  I had no idea that this book started as fan fic, but it makes perfect sense. 
    That said, I think the incredibly strong reaction that readers have had to this book, highlights a real desire to see more meat in romance novels.  There is just so much sweetness and light out there right now, that one rarely finds the kind of strong emotions that something like a dom/sub relationship brings out.

  9. Liza Brown says:

    I’ve also had many people tell me I must read this book/series. After reading just a bit on Amazon, I knew the book wasn’t for me. If the relationship is anything like the Bella-Edward relationship, I’m even more glad I didn’t read it. I read all 4 books in the Twilight series and never loved their relationship.

    BTW, I love the new look to the site!

  10. Rain-jelly says:

    You know you lost me at:  “The level of detail and the density of the text – by which I mean THERE ARE A LOT OF WORDS IN THIS BOOK”

  11. Paradog2 says:

    The people who are gushing over the story and sensationalizing the hero here are the very same ones who loved it in it’s original state – Master of the Universe – a Twilight fanfiction. So of course it would have a Twilight vibe since it was actually a Twilight fanfiction reworked to be publishable.

  12. Ann F. says:

    I thought I was the only one!  Thanks for the review – I thought I was losing my mind.

  13. SB Sarah says:

    Thanks, Liza!

    And isn’t it somewhat alienating when you don’t like something that so many people adored? I kept going back to this book like the Hammer of Brilliance would come flying out of the next chapter and konk me on the head, but it never happened. No hammer for me.

  14. Jenny Dolton says:

    I almost don’t want to admit this, but I first read this story while it was a fanfic, and highly enjoyed it. I do think it works a lot better as fanfiction, because while Edward, Bella, and the rest of the gang may be extremely out of character, there is still a familiarity about them. As a reader, you feel like you already know who they are and how they fit together. (And honestly, I liked Ms. James’ version of Edward and Bella better than Ms. Meyer’s.)

    But when I read the story again as the OFFICIAL PUBLISHED VERSION, I felt like it was lacking a lot of what drew me to it in the original version. The characters were no longer familiar, the misplaced British-isms were no longer charming, and the typos, which I can ignore in fanfiction, drove me a little nuts because I had actually paid for this book.

    That being said, I am looking forward to the third installment.

  15. Just me says:

    You are my hero.  I’ve been saying the same thing about this story since it was a fanfic and couldn’t understand the appeal.  Glad to know I’m not the only one who felt that way because I was certainly in the minority in the Twifandom.  🙂

  16. MaddBookish says:

    Didn’t read the Twilight books. Watched first movies, no interest in watching the sequels. Read the sample on this book. Meh. Not my bag.

  17. Anonymous says:

    While this story worked very well as Twi Fanfic, it didn’t translate into a published book, specifically for the reasons you mentioned in your review. And thank you for saying so. As you can clearly see from its many ratings, we folks with a less than glowing opinion of this book are certainly in the minority.

  18. Jill Sorenson says:

    I hate that saying about the sub having all the power. The whole point of submission (as I understand it) is to trust and allow the Dom to have total control. The fact that the sub gives permission, and can say yes or no, doesn’t mean they have more power. The Dom can also say yes or no.

    It’s like the “rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power” adage. I don’t believe that. The act of rape has a sexual element. If not, the rapist would just exert pain and power in a non-sexual way.

    Okay, I guess that got a little off topic…

  19. Thank you! It’s good to know I’m not alone in my WTFery. I read the sample and I was just floored. I could barely finish it—why would i want to spend my time slogging through THREE books of that?

  20. L. Sumrall says:

    I’ve been there so many times. Not just books, but movies, tv shows, music, etc. that people are simply gushing about and falling over themselves to worship at the altar of [insert name of Current Big Thing here], and I’m left to wonder “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I make myself like this?”

    Then after awhile I say, “Screw you, underpaid nerdlings! This book/movie/album/whatever sucks, and I’m the only one with the balls to say it!”

  21. VirginiaLlorca says:

    I had a yahoo screen name “subsrule” because my husband is a sub vet (USNavy) and got a lot of interesting inquiries.  So I changed it.  I think the insight on BDSM is very interesting since I have never looked into it, not being interested, but I have to disagree with Jill about the permission giving and who has the power.  This is kind of a simple dynamic that is a part of every act of oral sex.  No?

    Thanks for reviewing, but I prob wouldn’t consider it anyway.

  22. Trippinoutmysoul says:

    After read the SB review, I almost didn’t bother trying to read the book, but I did, and I’m glad. That said, I can still relate to the things other people have said they don’t like about it.
    Regarding Christian’s immaturity, it makes sense to me (and I think the second book actually comes out and says it) because he didn’t really have a childhood. He went from gross abuse and neglect to an environment of affluence, and after a brief period as a young teenager when he actually WAS acting out, he was seduced into a D/s relationship where he didn’t have to be responsible for his actions. I think he makes a great wounded hero, and that his actions read true to his background and experiences. Well, except for the part where he’s a 27 year old bagazillionaire, but I’m plenty flexible with creative license.
    I also agree that Ana’s inner monologue leaves something to be desired, but I do really appreciate the input of her alter egos, her “subconscience” and “inner goddess”. I think it was a good depiction of the often conflicting motives and desires we all have.
    One thing that bothered me personally was all the gasping and whispering. I read once that as an author, the best way to construct dialogue is with a simple ’ “<dialogue>”, he said.’ and I agree. If your characters are well made, the reader can infer for herself the way something is being said, and all that unneccessary and, well, dumb sounding gasping and whispering did nothing but pull me out of the story because I found it irritating.
    Despite my few grievances, I did really like the first two books in this trilogy and will definitely be reading the third. I haven’t read a lot about BDSM, so that was an education in itself, and I find the over all story satisfies my girly need for anguish, angst, inner turmoil, and romance.</dialogue>

  23. I am one of the ones who absolutely loved this book and its sequel. I wouldn’t shut up about it until my GR friends read it, lol. I love, love Christian Grey – definitely one of my favorite heroes.

    I do wish the author had tightened up the three “books” and edited them down to two, instead of keeping everything she had in the fan fiction. I am also someone who knew nothing of fan fiction, don’t like or follow Twilight, etc. so didn’t make that connection till I was told.

    For those who didn’t like it though, I completely understand the feeling of “alienation” you mention Sarah – another book that people have been going crazy is Gabriel’s Inferno and I hated it – strong word, I know … I did finish it, but will not be picking up any sequels. Everyone else RAVES about it though, so definitely felt like the odd-woman out on that one.

    Also, want to 100% agree with that section you pointed out in the book. I had read barely any dom-sub books when I read this one and I felt that the way it was portrayed made it so much more … understandable, I guess? Or it made it real, as opposed to just a kinky accent that’s added on for thrills but not really explored.

  24. SeaRock says:

    I am one of the readers who rec’d this to Sarah. I was so curious to know how it would go over…. ha ha. I had a feeling it would be like a lead balloon 🙂 I started reading this as fanfiction and was pretty new to romance (I had read Twilight and some Lisa Kleypas), so the BDSM aspect was really new and umm… exciting to me. I always have low expectations for the writing in fanfiction for obvious reasons, but those that rise to the top have something that surprises or delights and this absolutely did that for me. I got hooked on the format- receiving it one chapter at a time- and now owning it in book form is great. Now that I have read nearly all the “top 100” romances and about 100 others, I wonder if I would feel the same way if I were reading it for the first time. I think a lot of us look back to our “first” and wonder that.

  25. Continuing going off topic … When it’s said that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power, what that’s referring to is what the perpetrator gets out of it. Rape is about exerting power over someone else and the “medium” or way that is done is through the sexual act. But it’s not about sex in the sense that it has nothing to do with physical attraction or anything else that is factored into normal sexual relations.

    Re: the submission aspect – also as I understand it – the Dom cannot do anything the sub says no to; the sub doesn’t anything of him (or her), so there’s no yes or no to give. There are people who don’t have a “safe word” and that would be a case where the Dom has complete control, but (again) from what I understand, that’s warned against and that practice is not promoted.

  26. SB Sarah says:

    I think reading 1 chapter at a time would make a totally different reading experience, really. Much less daunting, as I kept looking at my progress in the book and thinking, DEAR GOD. Are they going to get kidnapped by aliens? Or is she just going to navel gaze for 354,763, 879 more pages?

  27. SeaRock says:

    Hmmm… I guess there’s a certain “f’d-up-ness” and/or intensity that I get hooked on in some stories like “Beautiful Disaster” by Jamie McGuire and “Thoughtless” by SC Stephens (which is a train wreck, btw, but I could not look away). The Fifty Shades books are like that for me. Like a drug if I’m being honest. A really good one. In fact, its my drug of choice. Other books I love for beautiful writing or amazing plot lines, but this one I loved because it gets me high. Christian is f*d up here and he actually wants to hurt this girl. He’s never been in a relationship outside of the D/s world. How they navigate that is intense and crazy good, imo.

  28. @SeaRock: Have heard several people compare it to Beautiful Disaster, which I have yet to read. Agree with your intensity statement – Fifty Shades is very, very intense, as are his feelings (umm, obsession?) for Ana.

    @SB Sarah: Lol! While with me, I would look at the pages and think “Oh yes! I still have lots to go.”

  29. SeaRock says:

    Hi Jules! BD is a very quick, very intense read and I have it available to loan on kindle if you’re interested. I just need an email address (message me on GR?). Its actually pretty cheap at like, $2.99. Anyway, I’d like to add that I have technically read the Fifty Shades trilogy, so when I talk about this story, I really mean the whole thing. It was definitely just finding its legs in the first one. I wonder what it is about me that enjoys the first person narrative so much (?). Clearly that is a pattern with me.

  30. Jill Sorenson says:

    I’m going to disagree with the physical attraction part. I think that most rapists target women they find sexually attractive, not just opportunity victims. For example, Ted Bundy had a very specific type.

    About yes or no…the Dom decides how far to take the encounter. He is in charge of the sub’s pain, pleasure, orgasm, etc. For me the safeword doesn’t negate his power—the sub must place a huge amount of trust that he won’t go too far. What if he ignores the safeword?

    (Okay, I know that doesn’t happen in romance novels, but it’s a point that prevents me from believing the sub has all the power)

  31. Jill Sorenson says:

    When a woman performs oral sex on a man, she can be in control—I agree. He’s trusting her with his man parts. But in a D/s situation, her hands might be tied. He might be guiding her or holding her hair. Now who’s in control?

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that scenario. I’m saying that the fantasy is in letting the other person take charge. She has the power to say no…everything else is up to him.

  32. VirginiaLlorca says:

    I totally get what you are saying, but I apologize for being unclear.  I in no way meant that the person receiving oral sex was the dom. The tying up and stuff, I know some people take it VERY seriously, but I’m not one of them.  They are supposed to reveal who is in the rubber suit on Wednesday on American Horror Story, while we are on the subject.

  33. Casea Major says:

    I read this book this holiday weekend – yes even after your review. Because I had saved it as a treat while forced to endure Thanksgiving with the in-laws( and trust me when I say it felt like I was the sub.) I enjoyed the book. However, to put Grey in the same ranks as Mr. Darcy or Jamie Frasier (espicially Jamie) is sacrilege! Maybe you could categorize him with Jericho Barrons but he’s not really that bad or that good. Ana didn’t bother me but the amatuerish writing DID!

    Thanks for the post, Sarah. A similar book I’d be intersted to know your thoughts on is Gabriel’s Inferno. The Omin POV is a bit distracting but it’s an interesting story with depth.

  34. Suzanne Farrand says:

    Yes, there are times the pages scream for a good editor but all and all I found these books truly engrossing.  In the review, the immaturity of Christian is mentioned – yes, I think that is a major part of the story – how addiction freezes the emotional development of a person.  Second, the wordiness and the over use of certain phrases by Anna are annoying, however the story is not just told in the first person but first person/stream of consciousness so like a Woody Allen movie if you don’t like and feel some empathy for the protagonist you probably won’t like the work.  I agree with the point that the emails are one of the real amusing and well written parts of the book. 

    Below is my Goodreads review:

    Fifty Shades of Grey is certainly erotic but it is not simply erotica. The few times I have read a book classed as erotica I found it was a chain of sexual episodes with a story loosely linking them. Character development irrelevant. In Fifty Shade of Grey I always thought that Character was preeminent; that the characters were living a story and the story involved a stunning amount of sex (some of it very shocking) which is described in explicit detail.

    I included this on my “changed my opinion or blew my mind” shelf because ….it did both. If someone has said to me, “This is a book about a guy who is…… and likes to …… with……”, I would have passed it by. Or “This is a book about an innocent college girl who meets a guy and in spite of her inexperience she…………” I would have snorted, “Yeah right!! Every guy’s dream – the Virgin with a volcano of hidden sexual passion, ready to explode under the guy’s expert sexual skills”. I wouldn’t have given the book even a 2 second look over.

    However, I was lucky enough to just download this on my Kindle without a lot of thought. From the opening chapter of the book the characters drew me into their lives. The first day I started reading at 8 pm and finally put it down at 3 am. The book haunted my thoughts for all the next day until I could get back to it. I finished “Fifty” around midnight that night.

    I can’t really describe how my mind was changed without putting in a lot of spoilers, however, if you are looking for an arresting book which challenges some of your long held beliefs – this may be the book for you.

  35. Lucy says:

    The only reason this ‘novel’ has so many positive reviews is because the author, Snowqueens Icedragon or whatever started this out as a Twilight fanfiction that for some reason ended up wildly popular. She’s just capitalizing on the popularity of Twilight for her own gain.

  36. Golden says:

    I like the book, but appreciate your review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  37. Anon says:

    Every D/s relationship is different so we should all be careful about make general statements.

    As far as this book is concerned I was a little shocked to see it reviewed here. I knew it as a Twi Fic and I thought it was terrible. Glad to see it received a DNF.

  38. Cassidy says:

    Who is Roarke?

  39. Killian says:

    Cassidy: He is the Hero of J D Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) n Death series….;

  40. justmetwifan says:

    taking a quick look at the review and most of comments all i see is almost a total unawareness of their authors of what is a book about, how it came to be, why is it so long and why is it so popular. and it IS, trust me. this story has been a turning point in terms; something, we, it’s first and devoted readers, proudly shared as an inspiration, knock-u-sock-all-night-reading, table book, secret obsession.—everything about it invites me in—and i don’t mind to be invited.
    just me (not the one above, the original one):)

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