I really have no excuse for not having read Jasper Fforde previously. For several years, an unopened copy of The Eyre Affair languished, unread, on my shelf, until I finally banished it to Half-Price Books during one of my shelf-cleaning fits. I picked up Shades of Grey in a bookstore last December, right when it came out, as the premise so piqued my interest - and yet it, too, sat forlornly on my bookshelf.
I was somewhat irked to discover, shortly after purchasing the book, that it is the first of a planned trilogy: I signed up for one book, not a commitment, and this may account for part of my reluctance - I'm not really good with commitment. Sorry, book, I'm just not that into you.
But I needed an author I'd never read before to complete level 1 of my No Ruts Reading Challenge, so Fforde seemed to be just the ticket - someone I have not only not previously read, but for some reason, have been studiously avoiding despite the fact that his novels clearly hold some appeal for me.
Please excuse me, as I am about to have a brief teenage girl moment:
OMG I totally am SO IN LOVE with Jasper Fforde! He's the dreamiest! Mrs Jasper Fforde <3 <3!!
I don't even know where to begin with Shades of Grey, a dystopian novel set in some indeterminate future time, when the world, which is familiar and yet decidedly unfamiliar, is completely stratified according to one's ability to see color. One's ability to marry is decided based on color perception; so is the type of job one can hold, and the rules that govern the Collective, developed by the all-knowing historical figure Munsell, regulate everything from what people can wear ("I donned my Outdoor Adventure #9") to when they can have children (an "egg chit" is required). Postal codes are handed down from generation to generation and are tattooed upon each person. Spoons are family heirlooms, as their production is banned, possibly due to an oversight by Munsell, or possibly because the great Munsell, in his unknowable wisdom, had his reasons for excluding them. Failure to follow the rules results in Reboot.
While the rules for living in Chromatacia are extensive, the technology is simplified, reduced as it has been by numerous Leapbacks, during which technologies are reviewed and often removed from general use. So it is that the population communicates by telegram and travels by Ford Model T - when available.
Enter Eddie Russett, from a red-seeing family, who holds a simplistic worldview, and hopes to marry into the prestigious Oxblood family and inherit their string factory one day*. Instead, he is sent with his father to the outer fringe district of East Carmine, where he encounters Jane, an intriguing Grey with a lovely nose and a defiance for the Rules. Eddie begins to upset the order of things by asking simple questions and making small suggestions (he hopes to be recognized for implementing an "improved queueing method") and finds his situation increasingly more challenging as those who understand the system manipulate it to their advantage - and his disadvantage.
Although Eddie's view of his world is initially as simplistic as its technology and rules appear to be, as the book progresses, he realizes that under the surface, everything is infinitely complex - and he doesn't have to look very hard to see that, he just has to look for himself, rather than accept what he is told. Some people have no place in the world - the Word of Munsell makes no mention of them - so they are simply ignored as Apocrypha, even when, in one particularly memorable scene, an Apocryphal Man steals dinner off the table in front of them, and they must all pretend that No One did it - the Rules provide no other answer.
Shades of Grey immerses the reader in a unique and incredibly detailed universe, providing remarkable and often very funny insights (Apocryphal Man: "Almost anything can be improved by the addition of Bacon.") as the reader navigates the social minefields along with Eddie. The history, incompletely drawn, keeps the reader wondering what happened in the past that so changed our world - why are there Vermeers in the living rooms of the Greys? The world of Chromatacia is a puzzle that taunts the reader to solve it and keeps the answers tantalizingly just beyond reach.
Although I initially avoided Shades of Grey because I wasn't sure I was up for a Trilogy, as soon as I had turned the last page, I went online to see when the next installment will be available. That, too, is a mystery - I'm thinking I may dive in to one of Fforde's other series while I wait - I hear brand-new copies appear at Half-Price Books from time to time.
*Constance Oxblood is stringing him along.