When David McCullough at the Wellesley Commencement urged his graduating class to “read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life”, I do not think he had E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey in mind. This mega popular, once self-published internet phenomenon has jumped to the #1 conversation topic of book clubs and the New York Times bestseller list. Why would a dross look at a young woman’s exploration of sadomasochism titillate the reading public?
The naïve and just graduated protagonist, Ana, is being pursued by the incredibly good-looking, incredibly rich, incredibly possessive, incredibly talented, and the incredibly emotionally damaged 27-year-old Christian Grey. The 500+ page book begins with a serendipitous interview between the young coed and the titan of capitalism. The pursuit and attraction leads to Ana exploring sex over and over (about every 5 pages after the first 100) with complete satisfaction as she revels in Grey’s attention, her pleasure, his intrigue, and her diminishing individuality. The crux of the book is Ana’s decision between a submissive lifestyle under Grey and her own path to personal freedom.
If this was a narrative exploring a young woman’s coming of age in a repressive, patriarchal society like Lolita or Porgy and Bess or our heroine Ana’s favorite Tess of the d’Urbervilles, it might garner some merit. But the novel is just a plastic and damaging portrayal of how superficial entities can outweigh reason and intellectualism. In the Grey pursuit of Ana, she loses her own will and surrenders her quiet confidence to another. Ana’s senseless and repetitive babble in the form of stream of consciousness is more teenage angst than a well-read college graduate and child of multiple broken homes. Even if had true emotional grit, the pain is instantly quelled by the scent of male body wash and attention. The story never develops a plot line, any intrigue above her pivotal decision, or any characters or situations that resemble realism. The ending was good enough for me, without giving it away.
I get why it is popular. It is a sex book exploring a very innocent, open, and free woman, who has the ability to orgasm with every sexual encounter. But the book does not challenge the reader or women or society with this sexuality and leaves us empty of any meaning or truth. Sex is not a vehicle to character development, but the sole reason, pleasure and benefit of the book. It is not moral or immoral, but it is not real and not worth the time of reader who seeks growth and wisdom in literature.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a quick read that challenges the reason to read while promoting it. The first time I saw anyone reading it was in the dentist office. Whether the other two books in the trilogy reveal a stronger Ana who challenges her role and becomes an archetype of modern power and freedom could give the shallowness of the first book a role as a very long prologue. As for me, I am tapping out now for life is too short to keep reading the same scene, words, and struggles of Fifty Shades of Grey without resolution. David McCullough might actually delete those lines about reading if he read this book before his summer vacation.
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