A Facebook friend recently asked whether anyone would admit to having read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. I decided to own up in dramatic fashion by posting a review of the entire Fifty Shades trilogy. I'll start by disclosing two possibly pertinent background facts:
(a) I have little experience with the erotic romance genre or the BDSM sub-genre. Before this series, I had read only Roni Loren's Crash Into You -- which I recommend for its intriguing and likable characters, as well as its steamy interludes.
(b) I have read, enjoyed and reread Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, from which a previous version of Fifty Shades was originally derived. (Sneer if you will: I'll hide behind my B.A. with Distinction in English and American Literature.) (Never mind how many decades have elapsed since then.)
In this fanfic turned stand-alone series, alternate Edward and alternate Bella have become Christian Grey, smoldering young billionaire, and Anastasia Steele, a shy, awkward and inexperienced lover of literature, about to graduate from college as the first book begins. Like his vampire inspiration, Christian has an alarming secret -- and like Bella, Anastasia (Ana) is powerfully drawn to the attractive, complex and charismatic stranger.
The story is told entirely from Ana's POV -- and her choice of words is fairly demure and euphemistic, with the notable exception of "f*ck." (We hear a good deal of this one word from Christian as well, occasionally in quaint phrases like "kinky f*ckery.") This relatively mild language lowers the entry barrier for those of us who aren't used to the liberal use of blunt sexual terminology in our reading.
It's debatable whether this series properly belongs in the BDSM category at all. It presents, at least, an interesting twist on that sub-genre: one that will draw some people in who might otherwise hesitate, while upsetting some readers used to the more standard fare. (To be more specific would require spoilers, but it's easy to find out what I'm talking about, or rather, not talking about.)
The ratio of sex to plot may be typical for the genre and would be absurd outside it. That said, the plot has its interest. (There is one particularly effective plot point in the third book, recalling a key event in the first book with a nice reflective twist.) While relying in part on the plot of the Twilight saga, James alters it sufficiently to avoid boring a reader familiar with that work. In fact, she does a nice job of translating some of the supernatural elements of the Twilight plot into human motivations and responses. (As an author, I can imagine the chuckles of satisfaction with which she may have greeted some of these inspirations.) It's no surprise that Christian and Ana are derived from Edward and Bella, but they are fully realized and independent characters, capable of change and growth. Christian's personality and back story are particularly compelling.
The remaining traces of Twilight (and there are quite a few) are a pleasant extra for fans of that series -- an extended literary allusion, or an inside joke -- but are well integrated into their new context, and should not pose any problem for those uninterested in the Twilight series.
Christian and Ana exchange quite a few emails -- and these exchanges were perhaps my favorite part of the books. In email, they meet as equals, communicating more freely than in person and sparring with a good deal of wit.
I also enjoyed Ana's constant inner companions, her "subconscious" (often, but not always, a critical killjoy) and her "inner goddess" (an energetic, reckless and irreverent enthusiast).
There are failures of editing, particularly in the second book. The sex scenes become quite redundant, with the same or very similar phrases being used in one after another. But for me at least, my interest in the plot and the characters allowed me to overlook these flaws.