50For those who’ve remained blissfully unaware, 50 Shades of Grey is the latest publishing phenom. Discussed obsessively everywhere from the Today show to Newsweek, the plot can be teased in just a few sentences: Christian Grey is a 27-year old billionaire in modern day Seattle who proposes an unusual relationship to graduating student, Anastasia Steele.  He offers her a contract in which she would agree to serve as sub to his dom every weekend for a period of months.

We decided to subject the book to the scrutiny of our Pandora.  This time it’s Sandy AAR and Jean AAR who open Pandora’s Box.

Jean AAR: I really wasn’t sure what to expect, considering all the buzz, but there also seemed to be a lot of hyperbole in either direction – either it was the greatest thing since the Pill or the worst thing ever published.  So I kind of took it in stride.  If I had to grade it, I’d give it a C+/B-.  Parts of it are weirdly compelling, but other parts are just downright amateur.  Still, it’s not really any different from hundreds of other romance novels.

Sandy AAR: I agree.  It’s a romance novel.  I kind of land in the B- territory.  I thought it was kind of like an HP in a weird way. Mysterious gazallionaire meets virtuous student and sweeps her away to his lair yadda, yadda, yadda.  But then there’s the sex.  Which is actually pretty raunchy.

JW: Do you think the raunchiness gets tiring, or becomes unnecessary, especially in the second book?  I haven’t read the third book yet, but I feel that if you took out two-thirds of the sex, edited heavily, and compressed, there’d be a B/B+ in there somewhere.

Sandy: Yes, the sex did become repetitive.  But I think the sex – specifically, the BDSM –is a reason for a lot of people to come to the party and, if you took that out, what you’d have here is an HP.

JW: I have a huge problem with the diction, particularly in the first book.  In the first place, it’s set in Seattle.  In the United States of America.  Anastasia is American.  Then why the hell is she going around talking about singlets, arses, and Christian telling her she has “damned cheek”?  Unless I missed the boat and those are all prevalent American terms, I think the (British) author really should have just set it in the UK.  Minor, I know, but man it bugged me.

Sandy: Therein the author reveals her amateurism.  Nope, those are not Americanisms and it’s damned cheeky of the author not to get it right.

JW: There’s some old-school usage that’s completely out of place.  “Vixen.”  “Smitten.”  And a handful of other terms I don’t remember, but that really jarred coming from the mouth of a 27-year-old man in 2012 Seattle.

Sandy: What?  You thinkest that a man of youthful vintage would not speak thusly?  Okay, so the language kind of sucked.  I’ve read plenty worse in today’s romance novels. It’s not any more anachronistic than that proverbial London secretary and the sheikh.

JW: Third: UST, aka Unresolved Sexual Tension.  This deserves it’s own category.  Before I slam it, I have to know: Do people actually use this in real conversation?  Would middle-aged, thrice-married women like Anastasia’s mother just casually throw it into her speech?  Because it sounds very, very wrong.  And considering the term’s fanfiction antecedents, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just the author throwing a shout-out to her fans or something.

Sandy: I had to google that too.  Well, truth is I didn’t bother to.  But, no, it was new to me a well.

JW: Fourth: What in bejeezus are grey flannel pants?  Like, pajama pants?  A 27-year-old natty billionaire walks around wearing white linen shirts and grey flannel pants?  Give me a break.

Sandy: I’ll cut the author a break here.  Flannel in this case refers to a very fine type of suit material and not fuzzy jammy bottoms.

JW: At first, I was a bit derisive of the predictable BDSM Man Turns Vanilla With Love of Good Woman progression, but there’s valuable development in the second book regarding this, particularly chatting with the psychologist, that I think ultimately saves the day.  I do find the sex repetitive, emotions over the top, and not a smidgen of subtlety anywhere.  A good editor (and a better writer) could have cut this down to a very decent two volumes.  Haven’t read the third book, but I’m not exactly raring to go on it.

Sandy: Well, truth be told, I found the BDSM kind of squicky and I skimmed it.  Just not my thing – not, for the eleventy-thousandth time, that I’m judging anyone.  But, yes, the message was very clear that Christian was screwed up and that was expressed by the way he withheld himself and had to control his sexuality.  It was all about control with him.  When it became less necessary – i.e, thanks to the love of a good woman – the more vanilla he became.   For someone who enjoys the BDSM stuff, I’m betting that the second book is a lot less enjoyable than the first since they’re basically off that and into more vanilla in the second book.

JW: I think some of the criticisms about the BDSM aspect (that it’s a copout, etc.) are a bit unfair.  The author’s not actually saying that BDSM is bad, and vanilla is good, just that when Christian, in particular, was screwed up, he could only find a solution through BDSM.  She is not saying that BDSM itself is screwed up.

Sandy: I don’t think she has to.  Screwed up Christian is into BDSM, happy Christian is over it.  What’s the implication here?  I think we ‘ll have to disagree on the author’s intentions.

JW: The thing I like best about Ana and Christian are the email exchanges, mainly because they cut to the chase, and the snark comes across more genuinely than in their conversations.  I do like the character development over the first two books, and I see their relationship as equal, if not equitable.  But the archetype (young virgin and worldly billionaire) is too pronounced, particularly in the first book, for total comfort.  Original, this book is not.

Sandy: Original?  Not by a long shot.  I agree that the email conversations (minus all the Mac-longing, not that there’s anything wrong with that) were revealing.  And, hey, he gave her a really cool car and the latest MacBook Pro and that adds up to a “modern” version of an HP.  Yep, I’m back to that.  Minus the BDSM, that’s the crux of the story.  A handsome, remote, immensely wealthy and powerful man and the virginal young student.  With kink, of course.

My guess is that the majority of the women who’ve gone crazy for this book are turned on by the man more.  If they only knew there a’s a handsome, remote gazillionaire on every street corner in romance land, they’d be one of us.

JW: And I think that’s ultimately what makes the book sort of work.  Because if you take out the sex, there actually is a story and character development.  Which is more than you could say of a lot of romance novels.  It is really HP-ish though, except, I feel, taken back a decade or so.  I’ve mixed feelings about it: On the one hand, it seems a lot less contrived to have a 21-year-old virgin rather than late-20s virgins dotting HP land.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with virginity, etc. etc.)  But on the other hand: Really?  Like, really?

And I have to say, I’m back to my original reaction: I really, really don’t get it.  Yeah, there are worse books out there.  But there are also waaaaaaaaay better books, and authors, that I’d kill to see get this kind of attention.

I would be really interested to see what E.L. James comes up with next.  I think there’s potential, with a good editor at hand.  And I also have to admit that it feels good to have romantica, as mediocre as it is, gain some mainstream press, even if most of it is extremely derogatory.

Sandy: I saw the author interviewed on the Today show the other day and she is as genuinely puzzled by the popularity as anyone.  I think that a lot of the disdain is motivated by sour grapes – understandable, though that may be –but  she took the money and ran with it.  I won’t get into the fan fiction discussion, but she wrote the story and the Bella/Edward connection is minimal, at best.  She won’t be this lucky again, I’ll bet, and will soon disappear into the sunset, happily clutching her royalties.  I’m hoping for a better book the next time something hits this big.

– Sandy AAR and Jean AAR