A Tale of Two Books

So I finally read that book...you know the one that has most women buzzing and fanning themselves? I resisted it for a while, but ironically, I felt like one of the only people who had NOT read it. Because it is my librarian duty to stay on top of the current literary trends, I succumbed to the peer pressure and read the book. Wow.

Since I know my mother and possibly my in-laws are reading this, I will refrain from including the details of Fifty Shades of Grey. If you have read it, you understand why. If you have been living under a rock for the past few months and have no idea what all of the fuss is about, then let me just say this: the book is graphic. Well, that's an understatement. It's explicit. And erotic. And sometimes downright disturbing. It contains lots of S-E-X. Stop, Amianne. Your mother is reading this.

Now that I have gotten that uncomfortable detail out of the way, let me just say this--I did not like the book. If you have followed my blog, then you know this a monumental moment: Stop the presses, she actually didn't like a book! But before you roll your eyes and say, "Oh, she's such a prude," please hear me out. It's not because of the explicit S-E-X that I did not like it (quite the contrary), it was because of the B-A-D writing. Seriously, bad. Actually, it became quite comical to highlight how many times Ana used the phrases  "Jeez" (75) or "Holy cow" (17) or "Wow "(33) or "Crap" (92). For a well-written, dead-on review, read "Did a teenager write this??" on Amazon. Hilarious. And Oh So True.

I know that women are not reading this book for its literary merit. I know that it's perfect summer fare--brain candy. I have many intelligent friends who devoured this trilogy; I am not smugly looking down my nose at the ladies who liked this book. I am not a book snob, and I love my mind candy as much as the next girl (I just devoured a Nora Roberts book in three days, people). As an ambassador of reading, I am all for reading any kind of book as long as people are reading.

Nor do I want to appear as an E.L. James basher. I admire her courage to write such an explicit book. I envy her ability to run the metaphorical marathon of the writing process, reaching the ultimate finish line of publishing.  As a frustrated, would-be writer who is searching for THE idea that will morph into THE book, maybe I'm just jealous. But I have to question the fact that her story is obviously not original, and why is Stephenie Meyer not upset about her plot being STOLEN?!?

In case you didn't know, Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction--basically the story of Edward and Bella in an alternate, extremely ADULT universe. When I looked at this book through a Twilight lense, then the similarities screamed at me. Christian Grey is not a vampire, but he is a dark, too-gorgeous man with a tragic past to overcome (50 shades of Edward?). Ana is a whiny, annoying, clumsy Bella-type (hence her use of so many lame phrases), who has no idea of her beauty and the power that she possesses over this piano-playing, helicopter-flying, French-speaking, Adonis of a billionaire. There is even a Jacob character (Jose) and and an Alice (Mia) and a Jessica (Kate) and a flaky divorced mom who lives in the south (Ana's mom--can't remember her name), not to mention Christian's super-rich parents who live in a museum-like house in of all places--Washington. Oh, and the cover art that focuses on one central object that is symbolic of the novel? I could go on, but I won't. For more "similarities," read this blog post: Fifty Shades of Plagiarism. 

So when I put it all together--bad writing, lack of character development (James was obviously more concerned about developing other things in this book), and lack of an original plot, then I can't help but wonder HOW was this published?? And WHY is it still riding high at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list week after week?? One word--S-E-X. And so that makes me wonder: Are we going to see a whole new genre emerge from this? Erotica has not been a main-stream genre, but is this the "next big thing" in publishing--poorly written "Mommy Porn?" Honestly, I hope not. We are too smart for that, my fellow literary ladies.

Even though I read the book under the veiled secrecy of my iPad, I still turned 50 shades of red while reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Because of this, I read another book simultaneously--in public and around my girls. It was by total accident that I picked up The Fault in our Stars. I had bought it in the spring because of the rave reviews of some fellow librarians and YA book lovers, so it was the next book in my stack. This is the story of Hazel and Augustus, two brilliant, funny teenagers who just happen to meet in a cancer support group. The "fault in their stars" is that both of them are fighting the battle of terminal cancer. Doesn't sound like an uplifting read does it? But it is. It is a gorgeous piece of fiction, and it made my heart sing despite its difficult, gut-wrenching topic of kids dying of cancer.

I love it when books collide by happy accident. I love it when I see connections between books that I had no intention of connecting. That is what happened while I read The Fault in our Stars by day and Fifty Shades of Grey by night. Both books share the same basic conflict: both are love stories in which the characters struggle with problems--extremely different problems--but still conflicts that could keep them apart. That's where the similarities end, and the differences made for interesting comparison. Fifty Shades is all about the physical relationship, while Fault concentrates on the mental and emotional relationship, and that is what I find more compelling to read. I noted words and phrases from Fifty Shades for their nails-scratching-down-a-chalkboard effect while I dog-eared and penciled whole paragraphs of Fault for the shear beauty and ability to take my breath away. Here is one of my favorite lines in the book. It was so hard to just choose one:

"I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful."  (p. 260)

The Fault in our Stars will not appeal to everyone. It won't be at the top of the bestseller list, although it is at the top of YA Fiction lists. I am not sure if I would have loved it as much if I was not starving for good writing. But reading these two books together made me realize some things about myself as a reader: I prefer strong writing over explicit sex. I prefer original, flawed characters over stereotypical carbon copies. I prefer an original, heartbreaking plot instead of a recycled one.There should be only one Edward and Bella.

Using my knowledge of the Twilight books, which I admit that I LOVED and devoured so that once again proves that I am not a complete book snob, I figured out what will happen in the remaining two Fifty Shades books that I will not be reading. Let me make it clear: It's not because I am a prude; it is because I can't stand the characters. I don't like Christian nor Ana, and as I mentioned, I am a character-driven reader. One of my dear, super-smart friends has read the Grey trilogy (no judgement!), so she filled me in on what happens. And guess what... I was right. And that bothers me. That I can totally guess what happens in a bestselling trilogy based on the plot of another bestselling series. Doesn't that bother anyone else?


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