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Sherri Richards, Published April 24 2012

Local women love erotic ‘Shades of Grey’ for characters, fantasy

FARGO – For years, the only books Megan Riegel read were “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and “Breastfeeding 101.”

So when this 31-year-old Fargo mom of two and bank branch manager was looking for a little “me time,” a friend who’s an avid reader suggested she pick up “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic romance that’s become enormously popular among women across the country.

The trilogy by British author E.L. James started as “Twilight” fan fiction, gained a following online, and was released in mass distribution earlier this month.

Locally, the series is as popular as anywhere else, says Mary Schimke, community relations manager for Fargo’s Barnes & Noble. The books are asked for all the time, a store manager says.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” has been described in some media reports as “mommy porn,” as it vividly depicts the world of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism). The S&M scenes in the books worry some experts. Celebrity therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky called the books violent, and said the obsession with them is “disturbing.”

But local women who love the “Fifty Shades” trilogy cite the captivating relationship between its protagonists, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, as well as its comedic tone.

“When I first started reading it, I thought it as a bit degrading towards women,” Riegel says. “The farther I got into the books I realized their love is a special, unique love. I think everyone wants that for themselves. Relationships are different from couple to couple.”

Riegel adds there was some “definite blushing” while reading. “The sexual content in these books is like nothing I have read before, I was shocked,” she says.

Many women say they were drawn to the book after seeing publicity about it on television talk shows. Others came to it through word of mouth, or by seeing it on the top of most-read book lists.

Tara Gray of Christine, N.D., says she thinks women naturally enjoy reading romance novels, and “Shades of Grey” offers something a little darker.

“I think women really are interested in ‘dominant and submissive’ roles yet would never admit it, and this book gives us the perfect insight to the world,” Gray says.

She says the stories entrap the reader in Anastasia’s mind. “You feel what she feels,” Gray says.

Paula Stackhouse of Fargo agrees Anastasia is an easily relatable character. Stackhouse and five other women at her workplace, a large manufacturing company, have created a book club and private Facebook page about the trilogy.

“Each and every one of us at some point has said, ‘OMG, I totally heard myself saying exactly what Ana said!’ ” she says.

Stackhouse also enjoys the witty banter between the characters, and says the romance and action in “Fifty Shades” are “a nice change from the flowers/candy crap that we all too often have to read about in women’s romances.”

Kristi Nichols, an avid reader of nonfiction, first heard about the books on TV. The south Fargo 40-year-old says she’s glad she left her comfort zone to explore fiction for a change.

The books explore fantasies that people don’t talk about, Nichols says. While they made her blush a bit, they also piqued her curiosity.

“I think our culture has changed,” Nichols says. “These types of novels may have been considered smut or labeled in a negative way years ago. Times have changed, and I am happy for that.”

Kelsey Nogosek, a 28-year-old married mother of two from Mapleton, N.D., wishes author James had a better editor, or perhaps a thesaurus. The books have been widely criticized as poorly written. But the twists and turns in the storyline kept Nogosek interested.

“Honestly, I think it fills some sort of void for people, as I would assume most don’t have sexual encounters like those written in the book. Perhaps it’s a way for the everyday, average mom to fantasize without guilt,” Nogosek says.

“What I love is how the books make me laugh,” she adds. “I love how it reminds us that people can change for the better. Love conquers all.”

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.