Yep, I’m writing about it. Why? I decided that I—a student of what makes romance stories work—couldn't ignore a book that so clearly works for so many readers.
But I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to put my money behind the book, so I check it out from the library. Note: I waited on long ebook hold list in my intellectually minded little Northern California library system, again attesting to the popularity of Ana and Christian’s story.
I’ll stay away from whether or not I liked the book and instead focus on the appeal of this book as I look at how the book works.
The general topic of the whole Fifty Shades series stirs up plenty of strong feelings among readers and even non-readers(!). It’s a book many writers love to hate, even romance writers, and in part I think this comes from the fact that there are books that do a much better job of what I’ll call dark romance.
Why did this book make such a stir? The writing isn’t stellar, the main character’s attraction to a sadist isn’t so believable… the list goes on. But aren’t these the kind of complaints that people use to dismiss the entire romance genre? Its popularity speaks for its merits. The fact that people like this book despite its glaring problems makes it all the more worthy of attention and study.
Still, with the newest installment in the saga, Grey, one could argue that Fifty Shades fans will buy this next book simply out of curiosity. It’s the popularity of next book in the series that we should watch—once readers get a sense of Christian’s perspective, do they want more? I think they might. Let’s look at why.
I’ll make a quick list of three things that I think make the Fifty Shades trilogy work:
1.) If the last Twilight book tested out the New Adult voice in romance, Fifty Shades marked the true beginning of New Adult romance as a genre. At the time, Ana’s voice was unique.
2.) Ana reacts with as much distaste to Christians sadistic tendencies as readers might (though she likes his dominant tendencies a lot). But she moves forward in the relationship anyway. We foresee each step/problem coming but can’t trust either Ana or Christian to make a “sensible” choice. James creates a lot of plot tension this way.
3.) Christian is a rigid man who gradually lets down his guard and changes what Ana sees as his untenable parts, all for love. It is Ana who “saves” him from his darkest parts. James creates a lot of intrigue around Christian’s psychology and background.
Of these factors, only the third remains for Grey. Ana doesn’t narrate the book, and Christian’s voice isn’t unique in the 2015 romance scene. The plot tension is gone, too—we know exactly what will happen, what will cause friction in the relationship, what Ana will leave him for… everything.
So the book Grey rides solely on our interest in Christian’s psychology and the pieces of his background that haven’t been filled in yet. This is an interesting challenge for James. Putting aside my feelings about James’s line-by-line writing, it takes some skill to keep story tension/reader interest when we already know exactly what will happen, blow by blow.
The romance genre is for women, by women, and about women getting what they want, so this book’s popularity suggests Ana—and readers—are getting something they want. No, I’m pretty sure most women do NOT want a sadistic relationship with a man. The appeals of this book are other, and I’ll distill one: A man is forced to choose between a woman he loves and his “negative” parts he feels are fundamental to him. He keeps choosing the woman, even while he doesn’t know if he’s capable of taking the next step in this step.
Just like Ana in Fifty Shades, Christian discovers himself as he goes through the relationship. Being with Ana forces him to confront his past and his present way of handling it, and the process is difficult and—yes—intriguing for those who were intrigued enough to read through the other three books. The book Grey is essentially Christian’s struggle to come to terms with himself, all for a relationship with Ana, and I think it works. It adds another layer of understanding for Christian—nothing revolutionary but enough to keep fans reading.
The appeal of this book—a man deciding to change himself for love—got me thinking: How many romances are based on this premise? Is this one of the fundamental appeals of the genre? Hmm…