Monday 24 September 2012

Of book clubs and Fifty Shades of Grey: readers are horses and EL James holds the reins

It happened again the other night, this time at book club meeting. The book was pretty wonderful, but I was there as much to see my friends as to discuss the book (the way I imagine most book clubs function), and we were also celebrating the hostess’s having been given the green light to go back to work after a year off to deal with round two of breast cancer. So a lovely prosecco was the preferred initial libation, and it lubricated our group in a most satisfactory way.

The book under discussion that evening was Half of a yellow sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and everyone enjoyed it immensely. Here are some review snippets from

"We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria's civil war. Adichie came almost fully made."
Chinua Achebe

"Vividly written, thrumming with life, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel. In its compassionate intelligence, as in its capacity for intimate portraiture, this novel is a worthy successor to such twentieth-century classics as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River."
Joyce Carol Oates

Author Chimamanda Adichie. Watch her TED talk here
“At once historical and eerily current, Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in the forests of southeastern Nigeria 40 years ago, and honors the memory of a war largely forgotten. Adichie’s prose thrums with life. Like Nadine Gordimer, Adichie position[s] her characters at crossroads where public and private allegiances threaten to collide. Half of a Yellow Sun [has] an empathetic tone that never succumbs to simplifying impulses, heroic or demonic . . . . Reaching deep, [it] speaks through history to our war-racked age not through abstract analogy but through the energy of vibrant detail, [and] a mastery of small things.”
—Rob Nixon, The New York Times Book Review

“Instantly enthralling . . . Vivid . . . Adichie weaves [her] characters into a finely wrought, inescapable web. The book sustains an intimate focus and an epic backdrop. Half of a Yellow Sun is not a conventional war story any more than is A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . . Powerful.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Meanwhile, back at the book club...

I’d have to say that my "women of the book club" are well-educated, professionals (mostly), well-read, and appreciate historical fiction as an easier-to-digest entree into politics, war, and social events that we know, sadly, that we haven’t heard enough about. We were into Indian work a few years back; now it’s more about Africa (we read Little Bee last year). The warm writing, the way that the author immerses us in worlds so different from our own and yet populates them with characters we can relate to…those are the gifts we seek in the fiction we read.

But somehow, as often happens when women meet to talk about books these days, the subject of Fifty Shades of Grey came up. I think it was when we moved to considering what we might like to read next, what we’d been reading recently…and one of our number (also recently treated for breast cancer—it’s a function of age, I know, but at some point, who can help not starting to view her own body as a traitorous walking time bomb?) segued into a book she tried but absolutely could NOT stand…and it was Fifty Shades of Grey.

Let’s see: it was poorly written, poorly plotted, the sex scenes weren’t in the least a turn on…and on and on it went. And so, off I went, once again defending it. It’s a fairy tale, a classic romance, I began. “The heroine is graduating university, she’s 23, and a virgin. Not only is she a virgin, she’s never even kissed a man.”

There was some general squawking: “Twenty-three and never even kissed anyone? In this day and age? Gimme a break…”

Yes, it’s a fairy tale. But, frankly, did anyone ever promise it was anything else?

So what makes Fifty Shades of Grey a compelling story, so much that 10 million American women bought it over six weeks earlier this year?

Well, here’s the way I tried, once again, to explain it:

--obviously, it’s partly the sex. But I don’t think it’s the BDSM as much as it is, to me, the notion of the forbidden, the envelope-pushing. How far from your personal comfort zone would you be willing to go to please your beloved? That, to me, is one of the essential hooks of the story, and EL James plays it like a pro.

--then, there’s the motherhood angle. Christian Grey is a damaged child. His backstory is ladled out in dribs and drabs. That is the other humungous hook: the damaged little boy that our heroine (us, in proxy) must connect with, and heal. Will she do it? Well, just in case we hadn’t noticed, it’s a friggin' romance (not to mention a romance about friggin')—which means HEA (happily ever after) is de rigueur.

--but here's the rub: everyone who hasn't read the book thinks it's Kate who is tasked with deciding how far she's willing to go to please her beloved. But those of us who actually READ the book(s) know that it's really Christian, after a decade of his depraved Dominant existence, who must decide if he's willing to give up his addiction to BDSM sex for the love of a good woman (who loves Austen novels, let us not forget, ergo a woman of quality…just like us. Women who wouldn’t be caught dead reading such laughably written smut…say what?). Again, the classic swoon-worthy love conquering all.

And that, perhaps, is the pleasure of reading something that, as a writer, I can recognize as derivative on so many levels. The dialogue, holy cow, is ludicrous. Ditto the star struck descriptions of Porsches and luxury villas, not to mention billionaire twenty-eight-year-olds. And the third act is so hokily ludicrous even I can't believe I read it (not to mention paid for it!).

Still and all, I enjoyed them.

In the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, readers are horses, and EL James rides us bareback, with sex and motherhood as the reigns. She pulls us this way and that as we gallop wildly along the bridlepath (bridalpath?). The thing is, the rider is really at the mercy of the horse, who is blind to this truth, or simply accepts it, deriving pleasure in serving her master.

Assuming the master, like EL James, knows just what she’s doing. And exactly where she’s taking us.

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