Book club members (left to right) Susan Roth, Anna Antonakos,...

Book club members (left to right) Susan Roth, Anna Antonakos, Susan Bosch, and Barbara Egenthal recently read "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E. L. James. (March 31, 2012) Credit: Jeremy Bales

At the nail salon, the grocery store and the gym, Jen Boudin of Melville has been urging friends and even strangers to read "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- a racy romance incorporating bedroom bondage and servitude that has become a grassroots phenomenon among women.

"I'm at the gym, we're washing our hands at the sink. I say, 'Have you read the book?' That's what it's known as -- 'the book,' " Boudin says. The allure? "Shades of Grey" is chick-lit gone wild.

The power of word-of-mouth recommendation has catapulted the novel by unknown London author E.L. James to worldwide attention. Today, 575,000 paperback copies of "Fifty Shades of Grey" will hit U.S. bookstores. Until now, most readers have downloaded the novel onto e-readers; hard copies have been difficult to come by. But since the book has been picked up by mainstream publisher Vintage Books, it will become widely available in both formats.

On April 17, the remaining two books in the trilogy -- "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed" -- will join the first book on shelves, for a total of more than 1 million copies. Last week, the story was optioned for a movie by Universal Pictures and Focus Features.

What it's about

"Fifty Shades" tells the tale of college student Anastasia Steele and 27-year-old billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey, who asks Steele to sign a contract to be his submissive partner in a sadomasochistic relationship.

"There's a lot of buzz because it's supposed to be a very juicy story, so people want to see what it's about," says Elizabeth Olesh, assistant director of the Nassau Library System; more than 3,000 people are on waiting lists for the book at Long Island libraries. Says Charline Spektor, co-owner of three BookHampton stores on Long Island's East End, where 300 books will be on sale today: "People are very eager to get it. Women seem to be sharing it with their girlfriends."

Barbara Egenthal's Merrick-area book club read "Fifty Shades of Grey" in March. The book club delved into the psyche of Grey: Why was he the way he was and why did Steele go through with some of his more unusual requests? "You want to know what makes him tick," Egenthal says.

Nobody was embarrassed by the subject matter, she says. "We're a bunch of old ladies. I'm 57," Egenthal says. "I was making jokes about all the accessories. You know what? It makes you hot. You might need a water gun to cool off."

Beach reading

Lyss Stern, who lives in Manhattan and summers in Atlantic Beach, says she expects to see lots of people with the book at her beach club this summer. Stern's company, Divalysscious Moms, which launches products and plans events for mothers, hosted a party for "Shades" author James when she came to New York in January. As soon as Stern sent out the invites, she had 900 RSVPs. "I thought my computer was going to break," Stern says. "Moms drove in from Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, New Jersey." James herself is a mom -- a former television executive who's married and has two boys.

Stern says the story line has made a lot of women feel sexy. "The book has helped rekindle a lot of marriages, adding that little spark or flame," she says. "I think a lot of husbands are thrilled about this book. Thrilled."

Permission to be verbal

Laurie Segal, a social worker in private practice in Williston Park, says the book has taken on a life of its own. "The question is: Why? What does it touch upon in the psyche of women?" she says.

Boudin is happy to answer. But she has to do it quickly: "My kids are going to be in the car in about 10 minutes," says Boudin, 42, a "happily married" stay-at-home mom.

"I think that it allowed women to become more verbal about what they want. I can talk like that to my husband. I can talk to him about things that I like," Boudin says. "Are all these women going out to buy handcuffs? No. But I think it encourages them to have a dialogue. Women are communicating with their husbands, talking more about what happens when they get home, what they want to happen."

A 'Fifty Shades' chronology

MAY 2011

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is published as an e-book and on-demand paperback by a small publishing house in Australia. Author E.L. James began it as an online fan-fiction piece inspired by Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight."


A sequel, "Fifty Shades Darker," is published.


The final book, "Fifty Shades Freed," is published.

MARCH 2012

The trilogy, propelled by word-of-mouth recommendations, has sold more than 250,000 copies and hit bestseller lists. Universal Pictures and Focus Features acquire rights to make a movie.

APRIL 2012

Vintage Books publishes more than a million paperback copies in the United States after acquiring the trilogy for a reported seven-figure sum.

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