The scene: a well appointed front room in Ramsbottom.
Cast: ladies of the "Lower Rossendale Valley Mums' book group". Names have been changed.
Bella writes: I'm apprehensive about book group this month. We're 'doing' 50 Shades of Grey, and I don't know how to talk to six other middle class mums about what is essentially a one-handed read. All we have in common is that we live locally and have children. Our hostess Faye's lounge is already packed when I arrive. Eleven women are squished onto every seating space in the room: the biggest turn out ever. My worst fears are confirmed when Faye reads out some questions for reading groups that she has downloaded from the Internet.
1. Which bit of the book did you find most exciting and why?Just as silence threatens to engulf us, Louisa - a stressed mother of two young boys - starts talking from a floor cushion in the corner.
2. What was your first sexual experience?
3. Do you like being whipped?
"I didn't think it was dark enough," she says. "I wanted to know more about the S&M scene, and the playroom, you know, what went on in there."
Heads nod in agreement.
"I mean, is being a submissive a bit like that book The Surrendered Wife?"
Curly haired Anna, a lawyer, pipes up: "My sister's friend was a real submissive. Her boyfriend made her sit naked in a box under the telly."
"What, during Match of the Day? I could dance around with nipple tassles and he wouldn't notice me while that was on," says Jayne, who is married to a policeman.
"My husband read 50 Shades after me," confesses Lydia.
"What did he think?"
"That he's much better than Christian Gray." Howls of laughter.
This is definitely uncharted territory for bookgroup. It turns out that all bar two of us have at least attempted to read 50 Shades (one of them is an archdeacon's wife, so she's excused); everyone who completed it has also read the sequel. At least one of us has finished the third book in the sequence too ("I just had to know what happened," says Fi.) In fact, it appears everyone in the world has read 50 Shades, including Fi's hairdresser:
"What did you think of it?" Fi asked. "I didn't think it was that well written."
"I don't know," said the hairdresser,"it's the only book I've ever read."
You'd have to have been living in a box (possibly naked and under the telly) to have failed to notice 50 Shades this summer, with every supermarket displaying it wall to ceiling, and newspapers laying out acres of opinions (whether their columnists had read it or not). We skirt around the issue of how to stop children from reading it, and whether it is porn, fantasy or erotica.
"Fantasy," I venture.
"No, it's very real," says Zari, who is breastfeeding her month old baby in the middle of the sofa, utterly serious.
Instead we discuss soaring sales figures at Anne Summers, and who should be cast in the movie. Emma Watson (aka Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movie series) has been rumoured, alongside Ryan Gosling as Christian. Zari thinks Natalie Portman would be an excellent Ana because she'd be "brave enough" to play it. My suggestion of Prince Harry as Christian Grey (he has coppery tones, and likes to party) turns stomachs.
We agree that it's a feat of marketing, and a page turner (quite difficult with one hand). If EL James had stopped after book 1 she might just have got away with it. But any literary merit falls away quite dramatically in book 2, and plummets to new lows of drivel in book 3 (it was almost as bad as the execrable Tall Pine Polka, our previous book group pick). James deserves to be punished for repetition of words, phrases, gestures, descriptions (and by book 2) entire scenes. How many times can you get randy in a lift, excite your boyfriend by biting your lip or say "Oh my"?
Discussions continue over wine and salads - sliced tomato and garlic; feta, black olive and couscous, and a baked camembert, which I scarf down even though I'd already had my tea. Faye is an exemplary hostess.
Louisa confesses she's never read a 'dirty' book before. "What would you recommend, Jackie Collins?"
Overall we give the book 2 out of 5. This ranks it alongside Mark Billingham's In the Dark, a book we pretty much all disliked (sorry Mark). All I can say is that 50 Shades inspired much better conversation. (Further evidence of our literary tastes: Tall Pine Polka scored 0 out of 5, while we gave Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman a massive 4.)
I return to Wilfer towers, and construct the following list for Louisa, because I have read a fair bit of erotic literature. And I like mine well written.
1. Anything by Erica Jong: Fear of Flying is a good place to start or Sugar in My Bowl
2. My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday
3. The Story of O by Pauline Reage
4. Lunch by Karen Moline
5. Colette's short stories
6. The Diary of a Submissive: A True Story by Sophie Morgan
As I snuggle up beside Mr Wilfer, I imagine a footnote to the 50 Shades trilogy. A contented Christian Grey develops a receding hairline, a paunch and the bad habit of putting his feet on the coffee table while watching TV (although there is no naked woman in a box underneath it). He and Ana are both too knackered for sex most of the time, and when they do it's usually in the space between wakefulness and sleep; comfortable, familiar and not always earth shattering.