Warning: SPOILER ALERTS!
Two weeks ago, Erika asked if I would review (and therefore, implying that I read) Fifty Shades of Grey. Her request came inauspiciously on the hottest day of Edmonton’s unbearable heat wave. I am not a fan of the heat to begin with, but combined with the 41 degree humidex and no air conditioning to be encountered at work, home or public transit between, I had resigned to spending the week sweating through my necessary-articles-only wardrobe. I was on a packed and sweltering bus when I received the message, shepherding my two-year-old home. Having never had an interest or excuse to read the book, I didn’t have a copy so we made a detour to the Traveling Tickle Trunk (on our way, and it just happened to be air conditioned). Book-in-hand and slightly less heat-afflicted, we went home and I cracked open the book after setting my son up with a good puzzle on the coffee table.
I was semi-committed to giving it a chance to win me over. But after 4 chapters, familiar feelings of annoyance and exasperation started to creep up on me. I found myself getting irrationally angry at the main character’s complete lack of actual flaws (besides conveniently episodic clumsiness), the love interest’s controlling, obsessive/aloof behavior.
Then it struck me so suddenly that I said it aloud, “This sounds an awful lot like Twilight…”
I have never read any of the Twilight books, but my distaste for the characters and ideas I assume it represents is legendary. Later I took to Wikipedia and found much more proof of association than I expected to; Fifty Shades of Grey, for those like me who have been sleeping under a comfortable and oblivious rock, IS Twilight fanfiction. A/U (alternate universe), PwP (Plot? What plot?), lemon (sexually explicity) fanfic. It is worth admitting my knowledge of fanfic vernacular to describe that accurately. To sum up Fifty Shades in this context is simple, this is a literal translation of Twilight for adults.
Instead of Edward needing to protect Bella from his Vampirism (figurative penis), Christian has to protect Ana from his deviant sexual desires (literal penis). Only worse. Much, much worse.
The plot is fittingly about as eventful as the first forty minutes of Twilight. The books starts off as virginal Anastasia Steele is just about to finish up her final exams, and agrees to interview business tycoon and superhunk Christian Grey on behalf of her friend Katherine Kavanagh (pause for eyerolling), editor of their college paper. Their interview is awkward, and a few weeks and some cringe-worthy flirtation later, Grey flies Ana to Seattle. Himself. In his helicopter. He discloses his tastes as a sexual dominant to Ana by showing her his “Red Room of Pain”. After panicking about Ana’s (obvious but undisclosed) lack of sexual experience and prompt deflowering of her, he asks her to sign a lengthy contract agreeing to be his submissive. (Still not sure what this means? Read this primer on kink and BDSM.) The rest of the book focuses on Ana’s confusion and hesitation to submit to Grey while knowing that she would prefer a traditional relationship.* As told through lengthy e-mail transcripts between the two, punctuated with regular and explicit sex scenes that are adequately erotic (if not quite masturbation-worthy).
*Spoilers* In the end, she doesn’t. Well, the end of the first book anyway. If you’ve seen the Twilight movies or read the books, the story arch of this trilogy is fairly predictable.
The plot is weak and structures to loosely tie the sex scenes together while building minimal tension, but I don’t think that a gripping story is really necessary to enjoy erotica.
It was the characters, not the lazy plot or lazier writing, that kept my hands out of my pants.
Once I realized exactly what I was reading, I felt like I had been coerced into reading a Twilight book. This made me mad, and made me hate the characters more than they deserved, but still I will try to distill some legitimate criticism from my percolating annoyance.
Bella Swan, *cough* I mean Anastasia Steele is nothing more than the classic Mary Sue character. She has no traits, flaws or otherwise, is lacking in personality and is conspicuously fawned after by every eligible bachelor in her life, despite having no ego or self-awareness of her beauty, power or… anything. That is, it is beyond her vocabulary, which is downright ostentatious at times (“How profligate”) and noticeably absent at others (“Triple Crap!”) . James’ efforts to make her relatable by cutting down on the defining traits has resulted in a character so thin that it’s frustrating to try and predict her reactions . Her responses to Grey’s anger at her defiance/hesitation/rare glimpse of personality range from delight to fear seemingly at random.
Christian Grey is Edward Cullen, only with more systemic power at his disposal. Sure, he’s not a 100+-year-old immortal, but he is a ludicrously young (27) self-made billionaire who can fly a helicopter, has a dedicated personal staff, and is a sexual dominant. His controlling behavior is supposed to be demonstrative of his sexual nature, but mostly I found it came off as oppressive. Example: Grey purchases Ana a brand new car because he doesn’t think her car is ‘safe’. When she is hesitant to accept and concerned about receiving such an expensive gift, he gets angry and tells her “If I want to buy you a fucking car, I’m going to buy you a fucking car!” Then he forbids her from driving her old car, and sends a man-servant to pick it up, forbidding her of disposing of it herself, telling her that if she drives it, he’ll know. He buys and provides her with other extravagant gifts, specifically for the purpose of keeping tabs on her (phone, computer). Ana even points out ad nauseum that his behavior is ‘stalkerish’, and he’s ‘bossy’. And all of these events take place OUTSIDE of the long-discussed BDSM ‘arrangement’ contract – before Ana has even consented to being Grey’s sub.
But more baffling than the characters themselves, is their relationship. On page 281, a little over halfway through the book, Grey pens an e-mail to Ana:
“Dear Miss Steele, You are quite simply exquisite. The most beautiful, intelligent, witty and brave woman I have ever met…”
Uh, was the first half of my book missing or switched? Who the hell is he talking about? Christian Grey, a self-made billionaire who wines and dines at the fanciest restaurants in Seattle and flies his own helicopter, loves this translucent illustration of a female character that he just met? As Ana’s subconscious/medulla oblongata/inner goddess would say, “But, WHY?” Surely he has met women in all his worldliness that could surpass her beauty, charm, wit, etc. Especially since, as of this review and about 9/10 of the way through the book, Anatasia Steele has yet to display any of these traits in even paltry amounts. Well, perhaps save for beauty, and only by Grey’s account. Then again, clearly the book isn’t really meant to be taken very seriously, which is a good thing, because the central relationship strikes me as more abusive than kinky. Certainly, I believe it is possible for two consenting adults to live happily in a dom/sub relationship with a consensual power imbalance. But that’s not really what’s happening here. Grey exudes seething contempt at any other eligible men in Ana’s presence, follows her across the country when she expressly asks him not to and charms her parents into encouraging her to avoid other pursuits and focus her time on him. She wishes to please him and avoid angering him not to earn his praise as his submissive, but to win his love.
And the ridiculous icing on the ludicrous cake is, unfortunately, their sexual relationship: the reason everyone (except moi) bought the book to begin with. Grey is a BDSM dominant; he leads this deviant lifestyle because he was sexually abused by an older woman as a teenager, who afflicted him with this disorder by indoctrinating him into it.
Ana is a graduating college student who has never masturbated or had an e-mail address. What is the traumatic root of her e-deviancy?
And while it’s easy to accept that it is wrong for a grown woman to maintain a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy, what does that imply about Grey’s relationship with Ana, who consistently displays the flimsy self-concept and naivety of a 12-year-old?
So my friends, this book is bad. I’m sure you knew that BEFORE reading this eleventh-hour review. But, it’s probably a piece of harmless pulp, inspiring a massive orgasm of guilt, pleasurable enough to take middle-class lady America by storm. If it’s not taken seriously. Which it definitely shouldn’t be.
I can’t deny that I am incredibly amused that a book of explicit erotic fiction is now lovingly tucked on shelves around the world, next to a well-read, bubble bath-stained copy of Eat, Pray, Love.
I can’t recommend it because it’s so frustratingly terrible, but if you must read it I suggest you do so aloud with three friends, five pitchers of Sangria on your balcony on a Saturday night. Whatever you manage to sound out will still be better than the audio book.