It seems almost ridiculous for me to weigh in on this trilogy after everything that has been written about it already, but I want to provide my take here before I move on to reviewing some of the books that have been offered as readalikes.* I read Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker on paper, and listened to the audio version of Fifty Shades Freed. I got all three through my library without a long wait. Let me tell you, it is very weird to listen to an erotic story being read aloud when the heroine shares your name.
I believe that the appeal of the books (in terms of the public’s consumption) wanes by about 30% after the first book, as the sales figures and holds ratios seem to bear out. In my library system, there are still twice as many holds on the first book as the successive volumes (159 holds on 428 total copies vs. 73/300 and 86/284). The first book of the trilogy has sold 168,959 copies in 2013 (as of this week's Publishers Weekly data) vs. 115,447 and 112,251 for the second and third books, respectively. I’m not sure if this is a result of a bottleneck created by people still waiting for their hold on the first book to come in, or how this drop-off after the first book compares to other series.
But enough idle speculation, let me get to my thoughts about the series. The trilogy involves the complicated, often tortured relationship between a young mogul, Christian Grey, and Anastasia Steele, who is a college senior when the first book opens. Christian copes with the traumas of his tortured past by attempting to exert absolute control over his environment, especially his sexual partners. Ana is an innocent who is swept up by his magnetism and power, but she finds it impossible to be the completely submissive partner Christian wants, even though she comes to care for him deeply. They learn to compromise as various challenges threaten their relationship. As you have probably heard, the books were originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction.
I will say up front that I enjoyed parts of the trilogy, but felt that it would have been a much stronger product if someone had taken a firmer editorial hand with the text. Never mind the plot points, James repeated so many phrases (“Oh, my sweet Fifty!”) and descriptive terms that it was very difficult for someone like me, who approaches life with red pen in hand, to remain immersed in the story. As a longtime romance reader, I wasn’t particularly shocked by the content; in fact, it was a bit tamer than I had been led to expect by some pearl-clutching reactions.
The trilogy is essentially a romance with a more explicit erotic content (some BDSM-related) than you would find in your garden-variety genre book. Ana and Christian (spoiler!) end up living happily-ever-after. The books feature the reformation of an overbearing male character that is not unlike the redemption of a rake in a historical romance. Although I found the primary external threat to their relationship unbelievable, I did appreciate the push-and-pull of negotiation between Christian and Ana over the course of the books, which didn’t stop after their marriage. It was interesting to see how things developed, as well as the material she was drawing from Twilight. One of the most peculiar reactions I had was to feel that James had created a backstory that made the actions of the characters in the Twilight Saga (which I also read and enjoyed portions of) make sense.
I recommend that librarians on the front lines read (or listen to) at least the first book in the series, so they will be able to make informed collection decisions and be able to do the best reader’s advisory they can. There are various reasons that a patron might be interested in the series; this article on its appeal factors is a good starting point when trying to understand why it has been and continues to be such a phenomenon. I will say that when I tell patrons that I have read the series, they are immediately put more at ease and willing to open up to me when they’re asking for my help at the reference desk.
Book Review Index
*As part of my run-up to an upcoming presentation on erotica and collection development in the library. Since 50 Shades of Grey has kicked off a lot of discussion in the library world, in terms of collection development and reader’s advisory, it makes sense to start here. Future reviews will evaluate potential readalikes for the trilogy.