Books have changed my life many times over the years. This year, after much spiritual searching, I found my faith again. The words of the Bible, but also many Christian devotional writers, have been a guide to me. I have also derived a lot of healing and knowledge from philosophical texts, and poetry. As a teen, I devoured classic authors like the Bronte sisters, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and E.M. Forster. However, the book that truly changed the course of my life as an adult was, ironically, one that is infamous for its controversial subject matter and idiosyncratic prose: E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Gray.
Allow me to explain….
I tried the book on a whim at the height of its popularity, when I was around 22 years old. The discount retailer where I worked at the time stocked several copies of the bestseller at a time, a veritable wall of the glossy paperback cover featuring a gray necktie. I had heard of the brouhaha over the book on morning show news segments, and, well, I’m a Gemini: I like to be in the know. In high school, my reading habits had turned to romance novels traded amongst my friends, mostly paranormal fare by the likes of Christine Feehan, Keri Arthur, Laurell K. Hamilton, J.R. Ward, and L.A. Banks. I wasn’t always enthusiastic about these books, but they gave me a sense of community with the girls I was friends with, who were other bookworms. However, I lost interest in these books when I graduated from high school, and 50 Shades was quite different from romance novels I’d read in the past. It wasn’t just the BDSM that set the book apart from more traditional romances, it was the fact that its heroine, Anastasia Steele, was so young.
The female heroines in romance novels I read as a teen were generally independent career women . We enter their lives as their love interests do, in media res. They’ve already crossed major adult hurdles like choosing careers, going to college, graduating, becoming successful in their fields, establishing a home and a place in their communities.
Anastasia, however, was a young woman my age. I wasn’t used to seeing characters in their early twenties, like I was, portrayed in fiction. Besides the settled older heroines of traditional romances I was familiar with, there was also the boom in YA romances like Twilight, Fallen, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments, etc. I was young enough to still empathize with their high school age characters, but their concerns-the opinions of classmates, the restrictions of being under 18-were memories, albeit of my recent past. Anastasia, like me, was an adult, but just starting out. Like me, she worked in retail, and wore jeans and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers frequently. I treasured this rare representation of someone in my age range, and I could relate to her . She was bookish, but no apologetic stereotypical “geek”, she preferred casual dress but she wasn’t pigeonholed into limiting “one of the boys”, “cool girl” tropes, either. She loved classic literature, as I had in high school.
My generation of young women had been divided and conquered into damaging stereotypes, which we internalized. You were a Ginny Weasley or a Hermione Granger, and ne’er the twain shall meet. However, those divides, between “hot chicks” and “the best friend type”, “girly girls” and “one of the guys” didn’t apply in Fifty Shades, or to its heroine. All roads seemed to meet in Anna, who worked in a hardware store, had been raised by a military veteran father and knew her way around a car engine, but also adored the work of Thomas Hardy and borrowed her best friend’s designer clothes when she felt the need to step it up from blue jeans. I can see now that I was so blown away because Anna was the girl I wanted to be, comfortable in her skin and able to confidently carry a multifaceted identity, one not influenced by stereotypes.
I was not yet in college at this time in my life, though I was in my early 20s. A mix-up with my mom’s taxes had prevented me from entering a local community college I had been accepted into at 18. I entered the workforce, and was considering my options. My work in retail paid fairly well for someone my age, but I was increasingly dispirited, often depressed because I wasn’t pursuing my education.
Readers meet Anna as she is graduating from college with a degree in English, with aspirations to work in publishing as an editor. Her bright future was another thing about Anna that intrigued me. She, unlike me, had lived the post-high school dream of following your goals to college.
It wasn’t, I resolved, too late for me! I began looking into editor jobs in my state, and found many concentrated in a beachside town where my family had spent many happy vacations. I began to shake off my doldrums, and rather than weighed down by the purgatory of my current job and life I dreamed of a career at a small publishing company, my free time spent strolling the boardwalk by the ocean.
My job, despite not being my dream job, did have generous benefits, and one of them was a tuition grant that subsidized the cost of online college courses. I began pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with help from this grant. While her romance with a certain billionaire wasn’t my idea of true love, Anna’s career goals reignited my own.
I completed my degree, and since graduating have been trying to forge my own path as a writer and editor. I have edited manuscripts for self published novelists, and had many articles published as a freelance writer. I have written and self-published a novel of my own, and am now exploring the opportunities this blog can create, while working on a second novel. My values, tastes, and interests have changed a lot in ten years and while Fifty Shades of Grey is not the kind of book I would read nowadays, I can honestly say it changed my life. For me, its heroine Anastasia Steele was a refreshing and relatable heroine my own age, on the same journey I was to begin adult life. She made my goals feel possible, and that encouraged me to pursue them.
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