What I Read on Summer Vacation

Vacation is over, and we’re back to reality and work this week.  It was a pretty good vacation overall and as relaxing as a vacation with a three-year-old can be I suppose!  No one returned sunburned, but I do have a few more freckles (unfortunately all on my arms and face and not on my legs where I could really use some color).  We ate some good food, collected some pretty shells and played in the sand and surf.  Daniel liked for us to build sand castles for him to smash; he’s not much of an empire builder at this age!

I have a confession to make.  This book accompanied me on vacation:

I know, I know.  I’ve been really conflicted about reading the book for several reasons:

  1. I refuse to ever read the Twilight series
  2. I have other books I want to read
  3. Everyone is reading it which makes me want to run the other way (petty, petty)
  4. I’m a little uncomfortable with how James is making a profit off of fan fiction.
  5. I’m not really into BDSM…not that I’ve researched it or anything
  6. My mother and her sisters read the trilogy.  Ewww.

I try hard not to be a book snob.  I enjoy a good, throbbing, pulsating historical romance novel as much as the next person.   I read chick lit.  I like supernatural fiction (once upon a time I had a book blog.  It was pre-Daniel AKA when I still had free time). I’ll read anything as long as it’s interesting. Right now I’m into parenting non-fiction like Badinter’s The Conflict.  I over-share my reading tastes with you to convince you that my hesitation to read 50 Shades is not due to any moral or intellectual arrogance.   I respect your right to read smut, even if it’s not the best-written smut (though I do wish there were more well-written smut).

All of the commentary on Twitter and blogs piqued my interest and finally wore me down.  If there were a 50 Shades cultural zeitgeist going on, I was curious to see what it was about and whether it was as sexy, as ridiculous and as poorly written as I had heard.   My mother offered to lend me her copy but just…no…so Jimmy bought it for me when he shopped for beach stuff before our trip.

Because I’m a bit ashamed of myself for letting my curiosity get the better of me, I’m trying to remain a little detached from the book.  So far, I think Christian Grey is kind of hot in the way only extremely flawed, brilliant billionaires can be. He’s got a few screws loose, but I can see the attraction.  Ana, on the other hand, I cannot stand.  She’s weak and vapid and unbelievable as a modern-day college student. As an English major, I am offended by her blandness though I’m guessing James is going for the stereotype of the repressed lit major (or librarian) who lives in books and who needs a kinky sex fiend to initiate her into adulthood and the real world.   Or an old-fashioned bildungsroman using sex as the catalyst.. I’m also seeing just a hint of the theme of the reformed rake: the love of a good woman will turn Christan Grey around and fill all the holes inside him that his BDSM Room of Horror cannot. I want to say that Ana doesn’t deserve Christian Grey and all that hotness but when I remember his need to dominate and control, I conclude that they deserve each other.  I’m only halfway through the book, so we’ll see if my opinion changes.

I have another confession: I’ve started reading fan fiction.

It turns out that there is a flourishing fan fiction community for one of my favorite childhood series: Trixie Belden (yes, Katie, you may roll your eyes now).  I had stumbled across some Trixie Belden fan fiction many years ago, but it was poorly organized and there wasn’t a lot of it.  When I went to FanFiction.net, I was thrilled to discover over 100 Trixie Belden stories with more being added every day.  Other Trixie Belden fan fiction sites from the past had become better organized too.  I started reading and was hooked.  Sure, some of the stories sucked and the writing was laughable, but I found a few really good stories that maintained the characters’ personalities with great new plots.  I realized quickly, though, that the stories I gravitated to the most eagerly were the ones that dealt with the romance between Trixie and Jim, a romance briefly alluded to and then downplayed in the series (because they were young teenagers).  Clearly, we Trixie lovers wanted to see adult (or older teens) Trixie and Jim get together.

After I devoured story after story, I realized that many of the, ah, most satisfying stories about their romance turned Trixie into a stereotypical romance novel heroine: naive, sweet, gorgeous, insecure and unsullied. She was something to be obtained and owned.  Story after story made reference to her belonging to Jim, claimed by him from an early age. I was really bothered by this realization because that’s not the Trixie I knew and loved from the series.  Unlike Nancy Drew, Trixie is imperfect.  She is impulsive and impatient.  She jumps to the wrong conclusions.  She isn’t a great student (I sucked at math too).  Her family isn’t wealthy.  She is spunky and longs to open her own detective agency when she grows up.  She’s a tomboy.  I never liked the chilly, perfect Nancy Drew, but I adored Trixie and identified with her.  She was so real and believable, she jumped off the page.

These stories turned her into Ana. And I liked them (a lot) even though the back of my mind was screaming that the Trixie in those stories shares only superficial details with the Trixie I knew from the series.  Over the weekend, I read Mel’s post 50 Shades of Grey Depression and Your Sex Life and everything sort of clicked.  Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot, and sometimes it’s fun to read a romance novel or erotic fiction for the, er, pleasure of it, but when you start to think about the characters that populate them and their relationships, it is shocking.  I in no way, shape or form would want to be Ana before or after Christian.  Or the sweet, naive Trixie who has managed to turn into a gorgeous Barbie but is nothing more than a vessel for overprotective Jim’s love and no-longer-honorable lust.  But some women might.

I know…it’s just a book.  It’s just fan fiction.  No need to take it so seriously, right?  But. Other than the obvious titillating (heh) nature of these stories, why do they always involve unequal relationships between over-protective men and objectified women? And I’ve read enough of them to know it’s the case. What does this say about us as women? Do we really want to be submissive?  Is it a way of dealing with the stresses of being a modern woman? Is there an allure in being powerless?  Dear God, does Katie Roiphe have a point with which I agree?

For what it’s worth, the Trixie fan fiction trilogy (yes, trilogy.  I’ve got it bad) I enjoyed the most was the one that had a confident, sexy Trixie tell over-protective Jim to shove it and in which they both had to work through their various issues in order to accept each other and find love. Kind of like real life.

Have any romance novels to recommend that feature strong women and are still hot?

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4 comments

  1. I was HOPING 50 was what you read! I am probably not even halfway, but it is already bugging the crap out of me- don’t get me wrong there are parts that have been interesting, but it’s all null and void when I remember Ana is just a helpless (and hopeless) creature of which Christian has been sent to save-puke! He hasn’t met my ideal of hot yet either…perhaps a bit overly metrosexual for my taste. Not sure if I should feel happy that I don’t like the book or am I just a non-conformist to the core! Thanks for this post!

  2. When I was researching my Molly Weasley post, I was shocked to see that almost all of the results for her were fan-fic related. I guess now that the HP series is over and we all know what happens (something I am continually disappointed about) there’s little room for the robust debate over characters that I remember back in the day. I used to spend a lot of time on Mugglenet reading what various trivial things MEANT and the themes of the book.

    So I can understand the appeal of HP fan-fic. I’ve read a few pieces but none that have been as good as the real thing. I didn’t love Twilight or even finish the series so I understand the appeal of 50 Shades of Gray more. Even thought I am stubbornly staying away because of the bad writing everyone is talking about.

    A long time ago I enjoyed the Amanda Quick series about Regency period romances. I read it in my early 20s so I don’t know how it holds up but the heroines seemed strong? Apparently the author has also written a fantasy series. I am also really enjoying a mystery series set in Missouri, starring a tough-as-nails woman detective and her love interest, a sheriff. The first one is called “A Bad Day for Sorry”.

  3. It’s been SO long since my historical romance novel years but my favorite ones were when the heroine was the opposite of Ana.

    Which makes me wonder if there exists out there any fan fiction that has to do with the Hunger Games. That I’d read.

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