Shades of Grey

Sometimes, it seems that certain authors have all the writing power they need, but not enough ideas: either they stop after one or two tries (I’m looking at you, Harper Lee) or they circle around and around the same idea without ever getting much further. Sometimes, it seems that certain authors have the ideas and the power to put them on paper. Great ideas are coming out of their ears, falling out of their pockets, pounds of ideas, they’re giving them away on the corners, and they can write them: short stories, novels, pamphlets, kids’ books, TV scripts. Think of Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Hugo, Dickens. And then there are the authors who have plenty of ideas — ideas a-popping, ideas for free! — but somehow they just can’t get there and live up to the promise of those glorious thoughts. For me, Jasper Fforde is one of those authors.

A few years ago, I read The Eyre Affair and found it disappointing. I loved the concept — a world where books and their characters were like the celebrities and rock stars of our world, where huge groups of fans really loved and knew and cared about literature, and passion about the written word could spawn not only adoration but its darker side — crime. But the brilliantly daffy world-building didn’t save the book from its damp characterization. Thursday Next was half detective, half Bridget Jones, and it didn’t work well for me. Jane Eyre herself, unforgivably, was passive and dull. The dialogue was listless, and the jokes were frenetic and repetitive, as if Fforde didn’t quite trust us to get it.

Still, I was willing to give Fforde another try, since The Eyre Affair was his first book. I didn’t want to dip into a whole series, and besides, the Nursery Crime division seemed a bit too shaggy-dog for my tastes. So I decided to try Shades of Grey

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Amiable Eddie Russett lives in a far-distant future in which rigid social castes, hierarchies, and rules for etiquette and marriage are prescribed according to acuteness of personal color perception. If you can see purple, for instance, you are lucky enough to belong to the high-ranking Purples, though the saturation you can see of the color matters, too, and will determine the job you can get and the spouse you can afford. Eddie, of course, is a Red. He’s visiting the Outer Fringes with his father who is a healer (one is healed by looking at certain colors in this world), and he’s looking forward to nothing more exciting than marrying up a notch on the color palette and settling down. But when he meets the belligerent prole Jane Grey, things turn topsy-turvy.

If in The Eyre Affair I found that the wonderful world-building didn’t make up for what it lacked in characterization, this book goes even farther: Fforde builds so much world that it slows and stops the plot altogether and prevents characters from being more than caricatures. There’s Jane Grey, who has a cute nose and threatens maiming and murder to anyone who dares to mention it. There’s Eddie, Our Hero, who doesn’t get a clue until the last few pages of the book. (Irritatingly, there’s no way for the reader to get a clue, either.) There’s Tommo Cinnabar, the cheerfully selfish profiteer. There’s Violet deMauve, the unrelentingly nasty girl destined for Eddie’s marriage partner. It goes on and on. Not a single character is allowed to have complicated feelings; never are we permitted to see beyond the bewilderingly Technicolor facade of Fforde’s future-fantasy, full of carnivorous swan attacks, missing spoons, and of course, chromotechnics galore. The dialogue is stilted and dull, but how could you expect more from such cardboard cutouts in the land of Oz?

Honestly, I found this book deadly boring. There just wasn’t any fruit on the bottom, you know? Again, it was a wonderful idea, and it just wasn’t executed well. Ah well. I think Fforde just may not be on my list of authors to try again.

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35 Responses to Shades of Grey

  1. There just wasn’t any fruit on the bottom, you know?

    I have nothing to contribute beyond the fact that I loved this line. It’s so incredibly true at times (I’ve never read Shades of Grey, so I can’t say anything.)

  2. Jeanne says:

    I love The Eyre Affair despite the very real flaws that you point out. And I feel the same way about the nursery rhyme ones. But this one? Gave it up after about a hundred pages. Glad to know I’m not missing much.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I know lots of people who love Fforde in all his many shades (SEE WHAT I DID THERE), including my beloved mother. But I just can’t take him, it seems.

  3. I want to read Shades of Gray and The Eyre Affair, although I did give the latter a chance for a few pages but it didn’t grab me. I do want to give it a fairer shake though.

  4. Steph says:

    Jasper Fforde is one of my huge literary crushes, so while I understand logically that he won’t be to everyone’s tastes, I still admit it kind of baffles me when I encounter people who don’t care for him!

    That said, I agree that this book has a really slow start and that the world building is kind of overwhelming… but I guess I felt it really did pick up in the end, AND since it is the first in a new series, I imagine the next book will be stronger as it won’t have to set the stage, as it were. It’s for this reason that I also tell people who didn’t really care for The Eyre Affair that I still think the series is worth continuing, because I really think TEA is the weakest book in the Thursday Next series and it is in many ways not indicative of how the rest of the books read. The pacing is off and the plot, while interesting in concept, is not as compelling as later books are. I know you say you don’t feel like reading any more Fforde, but I do think that his next Thursday book, Lost In a Good Book, is so good that I hate to think of people ducking out before the really good stuff happens!

    Also, for what it’s worth, Mr. Fforde is a total dreamboat in person (think non-sleazy Hugh Grant) with a very nice speaking voice and great comic timing! ;)

    • Jenny says:

      That’s so funny, isn’t it, the way we pretend to be open-minded, but deep down we really don’t get people who don’t share our most passionate tastes. I admit that when I meet people who don’t agree with me about the books I love most, I’m like… yeah, everyone has different opinions, sure sure, but YOU’RE WRONG. In my head, I mean.

      I’m so sorry, Steph! I hope we can still be friends, but I’m not plowing through lots more books in the hope that Fforde improves. I’ve given him two chances, and that’s two more than I’ve given lots of authors I haven’t even tried yet! Though I admit the dreamboat factor is nice. :)

  5. Reading your review and reading Steph’s comment teach me one thing. Authors are loved and loathed in equal measure.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t loathe it! I just didn’t like it. Mostly I was bored. If you want to see a book I loathed, read my review of A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. :)

  6. Kara says:

    I really enjoy the Thursday Next series (I so want a Dodo like Pickwick or a miniature mammoth) and I loved Shades of Grey. I did not like Nursery series however.

  7. Karen K. says:

    “Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” — LOVE the Princess Bride reference! Inigo Montoya is my secret literary crush!!

    However, I love the Thursday Next series — I think it gets funnier later in the series when she goes into BookWorld. I know there’s a bit about how there are only three pianos in all of literature, and the characters have to keep moving them from book to book. At one point, they mistakenly put a piano in Jane Austen’s Emma where it doesn’t belong, and it changes the plot of the whole book. I thought it was hilarious.

    Of course it is not for everyone, and I still haven’t read the most recent book in the series even though I have a signed copy — sadly, I missed the book signing, which nearly broke my heart. It’s even worse learning from Steph’s comment that he is really dreamy. :-(

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! I was hoping someone was going to get my Princess Bride reference. I believe you and Steph when you say the books get better, but I’m just not willing to put the effort in for an author I don’t think is that great. I’d rather read more Nabokov or more Crowley or something.

  8. Oh boo – that makes me sad. I did enjoy The Eyre Affair and subsequent books – but sad to hear Shades of Gray wasn’t so great!

  9. She says:

    I think you summarized how I felt as a whole rather well! Thank you! I just felt like there was a lot of static surrounding the (awesome) core idea. I haven’t read The Eyre Affair, but I’m not so sure I want to.

  10. gaskella says:

    I liked but didn’t love The Eyre Affair, but I really loved Shades of Grey. It allowed Fforde to be 100% himself and not beholden to characters from other novels. It was bonkers, yet I liked the hints of seriousness that seeped through in this one, and am looking forward to the next parts of the trilogy. As he said when I saw him at an author event earlier this year, he was quite surprised to find he’d almost written a proper novel with this one! I can back Steph up – he is lovely in person.

    • Jenny says:

      I suppose I found the seriousness not very well done, to be honest. I thought the characters were stock and the core idea not very earth-shattering. “Almost a proper novel” is not a very good recommendation! But I know I’m in the minority here — I’m willing to wave my No-Fforde Fflag alone. :)

  11. Shelley says:

    I smiled at your comment to Harper Lee. However, in such a wearisome age of self-promotion, isn’t it stunning to consider a woman who wrote the book she wanted to write, and then went back to her life?

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure I’d brand the compulsion to write that most authors have as “self promotion,” but it’s definitely unusual to lack it, and it’s certain that her one book is lovely.

  12. Jenny, I could never ‘get’ Jasper Fforde either. We can be right together ;-)

  13. Oh no! I don’t want to find this boring, but I have to admit that I loved the Thursday Next series so maybe I will have a different reaction. Something Wrotten lost me a little bit, but by the end of the series I was back into it. The Thursday Next books are the only Fforde books I have read. I would love to try this one. I do own The Big Over Easy and am keen to read that soon, but it does remind me a bit of the Third Pig Detective Agency (not sure if you’ve heard of that?).

    • Jenny says:

      I suspect that if you like other Fforde, you’ll like this one (though see Jeanne’s comment above; t’ain’t necessarily so.) I’d give it a whirl if you’ve liked others of his, which I didn’t.

  14. Kailana says:

    I really enjoy the Thursday Next series, but I haven’t moved on to anything else by him. I did have this out from the library last year, but never got around to reading it.

  15. I quite enjoy Fforde, but I think if I were looking for the same things you seem to be (developed characters, well-paced plotting) I would have the same reaction you do. Instead I sort of view him as the book (or audiobook) equivalent of a zany farce comedy film, like Jeeves & Wooster or Life of Brian. The stock characters are part of the joke, I suppose, and what’s pleasing is the off-kilter logic informing the system as a whole. But comedy is such a subjective thing – and so much of what others folks find funny I find deadly depressing or grating, so I totally get where you’re coming from! :-)

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Emily, you’re so sane. And I do love farce: I love the Mapp and Lucia books, and Jeeves and Wooster, and others. But there were things about this book, and also the Eyre Affair, that I just couldn’t seem to get past. We can’t all love the same things, right? And comedy, as you say (and as I think Teresa has said before) is very subjective. I am content to be the only person on the Internets who doesn’t care much for Fforde’s Fflights of Ffancy.

  16. sakura says:

    It took me a while to get into Shades of Grey just because there was so much detail which slowed me down, but once I did, I really enjoyed it although I didn’t realise it was the first in a series. Saying that, I’ve been a fan of Fforde’s since reading his Thursday Next books so I guess he can’t do much wrong in my eyes;P However, it’s sort of refreshing to see a dissenting voice!

  17. Kathleen says:

    I’ve heard good things about his work so it is probably worth it to give him another try?

    • Jenny says:

      Another? I’ve given him two tries and liked neither. It’s not like I’m talking about Jane Austen here. I don’t think I’ll be trying him again, no. :)

  18. Samantha says:

    This is why I love reading reviews of books I’ve already read…even if I felt differently it is nice to hear why someone liked/disliked the book and I can compare my reading experience. I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this one as it did start off slowly for me. And although I enjoyed The Eyre Affair, I never continued on with the series which made me question how much I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the honest review!

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