Review: Grey

Today we’re talking about: guilty pleasures. Do you read books you don’t like admitting to? What draws you in to a book you only want to read secretly? What makes a book embarrassing to read? Sometimes it’s poor reviews, unpopularity among your friends, taboo content, or something that’s just out of your reading norm. For me, E. L. James’ Grey fits all of those categories, and I ended up reading it anyway. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to share my review of it here, as well as some general thoughts about guilty pleasure books.

Part of me can’t believe I finally read this book. I remember thinking when it came out that it bugged me a little not to read the final addition to E. L. James’ Fifty Shades series (I’d read the others already) but I was not. going. to read Grey. I’d heard bad reviews, my best friend who agrees on almost all books with me hated all things Fifty Shades, and I had mixed feelings about the trilogy already, so I didn’t think I needed to read Grey at all.

I’ve been having an awful month, though, and I didn’t want to make it more awful by forcing myself to resist reading whatever I felt like reading, so in the midst of a rereading binge I spent some time flipping through the Fifty Shades trilogy. When I first read it, I went through so fast that I couldn’t quite articulate my opinions of it, or put my finger on what I liked/disliked exactly. This second time through, and so soon after reading Kepnes’ Hidden Bodies, I decided I like reading about emotionally unhinged and slightly violent men. It was Christian that I liked, as a character. So I decided to try Grey. And it helped me finally figure out what I thought about Fifty Shades, and boy do I have a lot of thoughts now.

About the book: Rich CEO and self-titled Sadist Christian Grey leads a satisfying if somewhat boring life as he runs his giant company and acts as a sexual Dominant in his spare time. Then he meets Anastasia, the one girl he can’t get out of his head, though both of them are skeptical about her ability to fulfill the submissive roll that Christian believes he needs in a partner. Mutual attraction leads them to attempt to forge a relationship despite the fact that they may be completely incompatible.


“Finally she responds, slowly turning in my arms to face me. Pain-riven eyes focus on mine, her look intense, questioning. She takes her time to scrutinize me, as if seeing me for the first time. It’s unnerving because, as usual, I have no idea what she’s thinking, what she’s seeing. But she’s definitely calmer, and I welcome the small spark of relief this brings. Today might be a good day after all.”

No, Christian, it’s going to be one of the hardest days of your life. And that’s why I loved the end of this book–the people reading Grey are most likely the people who’ve read Fifty Shades and already know what happens. The fact that Christian is optimistic right before we know things are going to go horribly wrong for him is compelling. Much more compelling than the middle of the book, in which everything is more or less exactly the same as Fifty Shades, but with the pronouns switched. Access to Christian’s thoughts isn’t much of a reveal because we’ve already seen his dialogue, his reactions, his expressions through Ana in the other books. All of Christian’s little actions that surprised Ana in Fifty Shades are just as surprising to Christian, so he thinks “whoa, what’s happening?” and doesn’t offer us deeper clues about his emotions. All of which we already got the gist of through Ana’s perspective. Even the parts where Ana isn’t present, the scenes of his work meetings and office days, are so dry and unrevealing that they’re hardly worth the space newly dedicated to them in this novel. We didn’t really need more of that than Ana picked up on. A good 9/10 of this book felt like absolutely nothing new, which was a huge disappointment.

The other 1/10 was made up of Christian’s first impressions of Ana in the first 50 pages or so, and the last 50 pages when he realizes how very much he doesn’t want to go back to living without her. These sections differ a bit from Ana’s experiences, which gives the reader a bit of new information. The only sections from the middle that seemed new and worthwhile were Christian’s dreams and flashbacks from his childhood, times he spent with his birth mother and the pimp, with the Greys, and with Elena–even a couple of past scenes with Leila make an appearance. Some of the interactions Christian has with the other important people in his life also shed a little light on his character–conversations with his parents or siblings, dinner with Elena, etc, but again, there wasn’t much new that Ana hadn’t been told about or picked up on herself. The best new conversation we have access to through Christian’s perspective is one with Dr. Flynn, his psychiatrist, at the end of the book (again, in the last 50 pages).

I think Grey had a lot of potential, but was poorly executed. We already had much of the information it tries to give us. We already have these same sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey–I would’ve preferred to leave it at that and spend this book listening in on all of Christian’s therapy sessions from the time frame of the whole trilogy rather than repeat everything we already know. I love Christian’s character, and I think there’s a lot more to him than Ana sees in the first Fifty Shades book–I wish we could’ve seen more of him in Grey. I bet Taylor and Mrs. Jones know him pretty well, and I think I would’ve gotten more about Christian from a book written through their eyes, and Elliot and Mia’s, and his second in command at GEH’s eyes, and Elena’s, and Dr. Flynn’s, than we actually get from Christian’s messed up head. His lack of knowledge about emotion makes it hard to take from this book what I set out for. Grey was a great idea that could’ve brought the whole series together, but it felt poorly executed and, at times, even a bit boring.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Parts of this book were good. A few pages were maybe even great. There’s very little in Grey worth reading if you’ve already read Fifty Shades of Grey, and if you haven’t read any of the Fifty Shades books yet, I’d recommend those over Grey. This is easily the least exciting book I’ve read all year. It’s not completely horrible. It’s not my least favorite book ever. But there’s no surprise, no suspense, and not much new. If you really must pick this one up, maybe just stick to the very beginning and the very end, and spare yourself over 400 pages of virtual repetition.

And thus we come back to guilty pleasures: I’d heard that Grey was a big repetition when it first came out. I decided it wasn’t worth the read then, and a third of the way through I knew I wouldn’t like the book much, but I kept reading anyway. Why? Sometimes the good things you get out of a book are worth the parts you almost can’t stand. Sometimes I need to read something I think is written poorly just to get my interest for it out of my head– like listening to a favorite song on repeat even though you know it’s going to drive you crazy by the time you’ve finally heard it enough and are ready to shut it off. Humans are curious–and sometimes greedy–creatures; sometimes we want things that are bad for us. Why fight a reading interest when simply reading the book will shut it down? This is why I read Grey, and why I only borrowed it instead of buying it. Why do you read guilty pleasure books?

Further recommendations:

  1. I don’t read much erotica. My curiosity for it probably factored into picking up this series initially, but what kept me interested was crazy Christian Grey. If he’s what you loved best about any part of the Fifty Shades franchise, check out Caroline Kepnes’ You and its sequel, Hidden Bodies. The main character in Kepnes’ books is a love-obsessed stalker who is surprisingly easy to sympathize with and much less predictable than Grey. Joe Goldberg isn’t as rich, but he is just as sex-crazed and exciting. You can find my complete review of You here.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading the first book, Red Rising, in Pierce Brown’s sci-fi/dystopian trilogy. I don’t know a lot about the story yet, except that the setting is Mars, but I’m loving the writing style. In Brown’s own words, before the novel even begins, it claims, “You’re going to bloodydamn love these books,” which is an appealing level of confidence for an author to have, so it looks promising. Check back next week for more info on Red Rising.


The Literary Elephant


2 thoughts on “Review: Grey”

  1. One of my big issues with romance books that deal with dom-sub dynamics (even beyond the often unhinged alpha male) is that the power dynamic is so uneven between the characters even beyond the bedroom. The dom is the tycoon, the prince, the vampire. The sub is the hapless young college student, the below-poverty-line waitress, the struggling artist. Even were it a regular romance, the age and wealth difference is very Harlequin and very…problematic when it comes to the sub having agency (and experience) to say “no” or leave or make boundaries. It’s often unclear what the sub is saying “yes” to, as well. The dynamic feels abusive and consent, where it exists, hollow and uninformed.

    I’ve seen a few books shake this up by either making the characters equals or switching up the dynamic. In one of my favorite depictions, we actually have the millionaire tycoon who is a sub, and a dom who is barely scraping by. In another book I enjoyed, the author switched the genders of the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make some great points! I agree that the dynamic is often skewed between the powerful male and the underprivileged female, to the point where it feels like a cliche when the characters are laid out this way. This is precisely the reason I don’t read straight-up romances very often anymore–it’s gotten too predictable to have so many different story lines and details squeezed into the same general frame. Even books that obviously go against the norm by putting the female in the role of power feel like a mirror image of the same general structure, a nod to the form rather than anything radically new. As you mentioned, it’s often the same with tycoons, princes, vampires, etc. I think I was able to enjoy Fifty Shades as much as I did simply because I haven’t read much specifically about dom/sub relationships, and while I know there are others out there I didn’t expect they’d be different enough that I needed to read every one. I am intrigued about books that turn the tables on typical power structures, though, and I would probably be interested in checking out any titles you wanted to share with me that break the barriers of the plot-rut norm. Feel free to mention anything you think I’d like! And thank you for sharing your thoughts!


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