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So what's the big deal about 'Fifty Shades'?

A reluctant reviewer explores why millions are drawn to the exploits of Christian and Ana

08/22/2012 7:04 PM

08/29/2012 10:25 AM

Let's get a few things out of the way. First of all, E.L. James' "Fifty Shades" trilogy isn't the 21st-century answer to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying.

Despite the literary allusions -- and I'm using the term loosely -- it doesn't fall in the category of Charles Webb's The Graduate.

Finally, if you want to pick the nits in this one, you'll be busier than the school nurse at an elementary school on lice alert.

At the behest of an editor and two friends who know I'm a reader, I finally broke down and read what is sure to be the bestselling book of 2012.

The trilogy started on a "Twilight" fan-fiction site, but James was eventually asked to stop posting because of the racy content. (I've never read any of the "Twilight" books so I can't comment on the parallels between the series, but there's plenty of chatter online.)

For all the hype, Fifty Shades is a contemporary romance on steroids, with strong sexual content. Once you wade through the sex and the angst, the sex and the drama, the sex and the sex, you find a plot that Harlequin would be proud of: Twisted millionaire/billionaire/tycoon Christian Grey (you pick the adjective -- just know we're talking a card-carrying 1 percenter) meets naive virgin Anastasia Steele, who doesn't know she's a) beautiful and b) attractive to men, and who helps him find his humanity.

Christian is twisted because his birth mother was a prostitute and crackhead who killed herself. A friend of his adopted parents seduced him into being her submissive when he was 15. Ana calls her Mrs. Robinson in a reference to the seduction of The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock, but Braddock, of course, had graduated from college, and Mrs. Robinson wasn't in jeopardy of becoming a registered sex offender.

But I digress -- and so do the books.

Anyway, the attraction between Ana and Christian is overwhelming and irresistible, but regrets and recriminations follow. This is essentially the plot of the first book -- all 500-plus pages. In this case, the regrets and recriminations center on Christian's request that Ana become his sexual submissive.

OK, one nit: Did Seattle's most eligible bachelor and amazing businessman really think a virgin would agree to a BDSM relationship, contract and all? (Inside joke: I'm still rolling my eyes over that one.)

After parting ways at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, our star-crossed couple reunites in Fifty Shades Darker. This one has a bit more of a plot -- actually, it has several, as James includes the scorned Mrs. Robinson, a psycho ex-submissive, a hero in jeopardy, a heroine who could be preggers and a meddling best friend to go along with all of the angst brought on by Christian's early childhood and adolescence as scripted by Mrs. Robinson.

Then we move from darkness to light in Fifty Shades Freed, the final installment. There's still lots of sex and angst, though now it centers on Christian's need to control Ana, who refuses and then begs for forgiveness even though she's really not sorry. All the villains are back, and their conflicts with Christian and Ana are resolved. There's also marriage, in-laws, meddling friends and family tragedy. Meanwhile, Christian and Ana work on his issues. And this being a romance, they eventually live happily ever after. This one is also 500-plus pages.

Of the three books, I found the second to be the fastest read. All those plots and subplots kept the action moving. Grey and Freed plod along as the lucky couple try to sort out their emotions among sexual exploits. Much has been made of the trilogy's BDSM angle, but I didn't really see that there was a dominant-submissive relationship -- Christian is twisted because as a teenager he was manipulated into a sexual relationship and led to believe that that was the way things should be.

I've read lots of criticism about his sexual manipulation of Ana, who, albeit a virgin, was an adult when they began a relationship. But I haven't seen much exploring the fact that Christian was sexually assaulted as a 15-year-old.

Overall, I can't say I regret reading the trilogy. But I can't say I plan on keeping it on my Kindle either.

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