Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fifty Shades of Escapism: this year's holiday reads

Escapism, for me, could just as easily be listening to a bit of Schubert at my desk as watching back-to-back episodes of The Bachelor on Sky Plus. High culture and trash culture take me to very different places but both have a special place in my heart, and this is why I have long objected to the idea of a hierarchy of tastes.

So with that in mind, I gave myself a well-rounded reading list of novels for my holiday which consisted of the beautiful, the silly, the classic and the downright filthy - starting, of course, with Fifty Shades of Grey.

My only criteria for a holiday read, as opposed to something to read on the Tube, is that it should, above all else, be a page-turner.

Risks should be avoided. Your much-needed two week break is no time to be forcing yourself to read something that doesn't make you want to whip it out at every pause in the conversation. A holiday read should, like everything else you do on the trip, feel like pure indulgence. (This does not necessarily always correlate to a well-written book, as I discovered...).

With the right book on holiday, you can have a truly multi-sensory reading experience, with your enjoyment of the book being enhanced by the feeling of the sun on your skin, the breeze in the palm trees and the perfume of exotic flowers in the air. With the wrong book, you’ll end up reading your friend’s dog-eared magazine for the seventh time while listening to the loud Aussies on the adjacent sunloungers discussing where they’re going to have dinner.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James

Michael Fassbender: my perfect Christian Grey (albeit slightly older than Christian's 27 years)

When I left for Indonesia, Fifty Shades of Grey was a very popular book that most girls I know had either read or planned on reading. I'm not quite sure what happened in the interim, but on my return, it seemed it had actually taken over the world. (My favourite headline so far is a toss-up between ‘Peter Andre to pen male version of Fifty Shades of Grey’ and 'Boyfriend squirted partner with brown sauce after she refuses to stop reading Fifty Shades of Grey').

The culprit of the brown sauce incident needn't have worried. This is hardly sexually liberating erotica that will lead a generation of women into a kinky underworld;  sorry boys, but this is pure romance. With props.

You probably all know the story. Beautiful, tortured billionaire Christian Grey whisks idiotic unworldly student Anastasia Steele off her feet and showers her with lavish gifts. However there are obstacles; he has a Red Room of Pain and stalkerish tendencies (but that’s OK, because he’s attractive) and likes to hit women with things. After a lot of soul-searching, eye-rolling, lip-biting, earth-shattering and palm-twitching, Ana decides that, yes, he can hit her with things.

Of course, the writing is appalling. Sometimes, perhaps at the 64th mention of Ana’s 'inner goddess' (no exaggeration) or her observations such as, 'his sweatpants hang… in that way', you wonder if the whole thing is a big joke. Annoyingly, I even caught myself mirroring her inane internal monologues, exclaiming ‘Holy cow!’ and ‘Double crap!’ to myself at various points during the holiday.

But, beyond rime or reason, Fifty Shades is bizarrely addictive and I defy you not to get caught up in it. It provided us hours of fun on the beach as we read aloud some of the more ridiculous lines and debated who will play the immortal Christian Grey in the film. (I’d be keen to see Alexander Skasgard, Ryan Philippe, or ideally a young Michael Fassbender, but I appreciate the latter may be unrealistic…). Like it or loathe it, my brand new copy was literally falling apart and missing several pages after my two friends and I had each raced through the novel, and now looks embarrassingly well-thumbed.

The appeal here is the potent combination of classic Cindarella romance, a relentless stream of constant sex scenes and a ridiculous amount of hype. Who isn’t powerless to resist? If you haven’t already, stop fighting your curiosity and come join the club; read it, have fun and then bitch about it afterwards. As Ana herself says, "this is wrong... but holy hell is it erotic."

Actual rating: 2/10
Holiday read rating: 8.5/10

2. The Making of Us, Lisa Jewell

The Making of Us is a good old ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ style novel, bought in haste from Waterstones thanks to the cover, which is plastered with praise from fairly reliable sources.

This is the uplifting tale of three lost souls who discover they all share the same sperm-donor father, who is now terminally ill. It was a relief to find real, three-dimensional characters and to discover that I could still feel real emotion, after my brain got such a spanking during Fifty Shades of Grey. I even shed real tears during this book, which I sailed through in a couple of days.

It’s an undemanding yet satisfying read, which I certainly enjoyed at the time and found myself caring about the complex characters, but now looking back I feel kind of ‘meh’ about it. It was lovely but forgettable; not the kind of book that leaves you feeling bereft when you finish, like the classic beach reads so often do (I'm really talking about One Day - I still miss Em and Dex).

Actual rating: 7/10
Holiday rating: 7/10

3. Hollywood Divorces, Jackie Collins

Hurrah, we're back to the filth!

Although a less experienced reader of trashy novels may assume they are all on a similarly low par, I can say wholeheartedly that as with any genre, there is good trash, and there is bad trash.

And with Jackie Collins - the undisputed Queen of the Bonkbuster - you are in excellent hands. She has been writing her inimitable stories of sex, scandal, fame and revenge for five decades and counting.

Ever since I picked up Hollywood Wives in a second hand book shop in India four years ago, no holiday has been complete without a Jackie Collins novel.

I’m not sure I should admit how many of her books I’ve now read, but each of them has been ridiculously entertaining and expertly paced. Invariably, there’s a superstar with a seedy past and/or a bitter vendetta against another Hollywood A-lister, plus at least three subplots that all collide in a dramatic showdown at a premiere.

Her finest work is definitely the old-school 1970s and '80s novels such as Hollywood Wives and The World is Full of Married Men, where lines such as ‘she’s a tough old broad...’ don’t seem quite so out of place.

This year’s choice, Hollywood Divorces, seems to be set around in the early noughties if the cultural references to Britney and Justin are anything to go by. The main character 'Lola Sanchez' – a ruthless Latina diva with a penchant for bad boys – is unashamedly based on Jennifer Lopez, and it’s fun to spot other thinly veiled portrayals of famous names.

Saying that, Hollywood Divorces probably wasn’t quite up to the usual gold standard of vintage Jackie Collins (usually there's at least one vaguely likeable character), but it was still my most enjoyable read of the holiday. With at least 20 more of her books still to get through, I think I’m sorted for the next few trips.

Actual rating: 4/10
Holiday read rating: 9/10 (The winner!)

4. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As our holiday drew to a close, I thought I would finish with something noble, epic and firmly on my list of 'must reads'. I found this weather-beaten copy of Love in the Time of Cholera in a book lender's shop on Gili Trawangan in Indonesia and put down the deposit of 100,000 rupiah (about £7).

Three weeks later, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon on the Piccadilly Line, I finally finished it. This is a stunning piece of literature that completely immerses you in the sights, smells and sounds of turn of the century Columbia, and is quite unlike anything I've read before. But it's not one that hooks you from the first page or that can be raced through in between snorkelling and cocktails. Having not even reached the halfway point during our time on the Gilis, I sacrificed my deposit so I could find out whether hopeless romantic Florentino Ariza finally got his girl, Fermina Daza, after sixty years of unrequited love.

With its dense, lush, lyrical prose and very little dialogue, I realised that Love in the Time of Cholera had been somewhat missold as 'one of the greatest love stories of all time'. If that is what you are expecting, you may be disappointed; this is the slow, gradual unfolding of a lifetime of obsessive love, and as the novel approaches its climax, our romantic hero has become elderly, bald, toothless, sickly and has slept with more than 600 women.

But if you take your time and appreciate it in the way you would study a painting, for example, the language and insights on life and love can take your breath away. On several occasions, I came across a sentence so beautifully observed that I had to fold the corner down of the page so I could read it again and again: 
"Tell him yes. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no."
Or how about: 
"It is incredible how you can be happy for so many years, in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not." 
How this can even be judged against the book that brought us the immortal words "He's my very own Christian Grey flavoured Popsicle" is of course an outrage, but those are the rules. If we are comparing these two books based on their beach read factor and page-turnability, I'm afraid there's a clear winner...

Actual rating: 9/10
Holiday read rating: 4/10


  1. Brilliant! I'm always looking for quick easy page-turners and make the mistake of taking too many epics on holiday...please do one of these every time!!