Book Notes: 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

Rae Padilla Francoeur

“Fifty Shades of Grey” by E L James. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, New York, in April 2012. 372 pages, paperback, $15.95. Also available as an e-book for $9.99.

Who hasn’t wondered about “Fifty Shades of Grey”? Since it was first released in the United States in April, the buzz has grown close to deafening.

At the international BookExpo in New York City in late spring, the book was mentioned in every panel, every workshop, everywhere. Yet no one legitimized it with a panel of its own or with any sort of look at what makes a book like this take off. And “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t so much mentioned as it is snorted.

Let’s reconsider.

Bashing “Fifty Shades of Grey” is easy but unfair. It’s essentially a romance novel with benefits. Lots and lots of benefits. While I’ve read and heard lots of critiques about the writing (back to that in a minute), few have said the book fails at its primary mission — erotic stimulation. It’s very good at what it sets out to do — entertain adults sexually. Compared with other books in the genre, it’s close to the gold standard. Perhaps that’s how it wound up mainstream, stacked on shelves in bookstores from Rockport, Mass., to Seattle, Wash.

This erotica is expertly couched in the story of a beautiful, virginal young woman who meets a powerful, handsome, rich, generous and ardent young man who likes to have the upper hand. Jane Eyre’s saga comes to mind.

Christian Grey prefers to dominate, and Anastasia Steele must submit if she is to be in this gorgeous man’s life. He’s moody, but she’s 21st-century feisty. Grey’s (“Mr. Grey” or “Sir”) detailed contract laying out the terms of the sexual arrangement does not meet with Ana’s approval, so she is allowed to amend it. Safe words are clearly reiterated so Ana can maintain certain boundaries when it comes to pain and humiliation. Some of that is unavoidable given Grey’s penchant.

But Christian Grey is smitten with Anastasia Steele. He makes it clear that if she is willing to try to meet him halfway, he will try, as well. In the first book of this trilogy, he gives a little and she gives a little; thus, the relationship shows promise, until he goes a bit too far.

E.L. James has done a good job laying out characters and a plot that make sense. Steele has had a slew of fathers, and Grey was abused to some degree for the first four years of his life. He has physical scars and he detests being touched in certain places.

Grey’s childhood may or may not have contributed to his desire to dominate. At 15 or so, he had a lover who dominated him. Between that older woman and the lessons he took, he became an expert in domination and had the money to invest in a world-class playroom. When the first of the books in the Grey trilogy concludes, the couple has only spent two or three sessions seriously exploring Grey’s passions.

The harsh criticisms aimed at the writing are mostly unjustified. The book is solidly plotted (though uninventive) and the characters nicely developed over time. I would have liked a more in-charge editor who could have spared James from so much ridicule. Deleting the repetitious language, the occasional goofy dialogue and the many “oh my’s” would have helped. But it is a romance novel at its core. Expectations need to be adjusted.

There are many types of literature and many types of erotica. It’s good that we have choices. Writers like E.L. James are adding to those choices and, importantly, bringing sexuality into our daily conversation.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at Or read her blog at or follow her @RaeAF.