Fifty Shades of Grey: The review to read so you don’t have to read the book.

September 16, 2012

E L James,  Fifty Shades of Grey, Vintage, 2012

Reviewed by Olivia Clarke.

I was ambivalent about reading this controversial best selling work by E L James, the first in a trilogy of similarly best selling books, yet I felt, without being fully able to explain why, that I had an obligation to read it. My intrigue began when many women of all ages (I am 19) started asking about and buying 50 Shades of Grey at the department store where I work.

After reading the blurb and some reviews online, I found the prospect of reading a book filled with BDSM-style sex confronting, but still intriguing in a strange, slightly shameful way, actually similar to how the female protagonist of 50 Shades reacts to the idea of exploring the new world of  BDSM. Unfortunately, this unease about actually purchasing and reading never left me. Many times I wanted to put the book down, sometimes due to boredom, and other times through simple disgust.

50 Shades of Grey has become the fastest selling paperback of all time, as well as being a popular e-book. (Needless to say, I was too ashamed to buy it from a shop, so I downloaded it as an e-book) This novel has created a sexual storm, and after reading it I can easily understand why.

50 Shades of Grey follows graduating literature student Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele and details in graphic prose her deepening relationship with successful, handsome business entrepreneur Christian Grey. Ana cannot stay away from the handsome, alluring and sensual Grey, who also finds it difficult to leave the pure, innocent Ana alone. Grey tells Ana to stay away from him, but she finds herself being drawn to sensual danger which, as a virgin, Ana has never experienced before.

The novel follows their forlorn relationship: Ana wants ‘hearts and flowers’, while Grey wants a legal, non-disclosure arrangement (complete with contract) which involves a dominant and submissive completely BDSM sexual relationship. Chapter 11 is mostly dedicated to this said agreement (which, although makes the relationship, and Grey’s control issues, seem more authentic) was actually unbearably dull, overlong, and indeed rather disturbing to read.

Does the Submissive consent to the use of:
– Vibrators
– Butt plugs
– Dildos
– Other vaginal/anal toys

So romantic.

They test each other as Grey submits himself to ‘vanilla’ sex and dating as she tests her ‘hard and soft limits’ of bondage, slapping and sexual toys. It was rather sad for Ana, I thought, that instead of a burgeoning romance with an exciting older man, Grey immediately eyes her off in their very first meeting as a submissive, sexual object.

“You know, when you fell into my office to interview me, you were all ‘yes sir,’ ‘no, sir.’ I thought you were a natural born submissive’.

It’s almost savage, like a lion eyeing off its prey before it rips it to shreds. Grey referring to her body as ‘delectable’ doesn’t help this illusion wane.  However unrealistic it might seem that a contemporary woman would fall for this predator of a man, James manages to convince me that Ana wants Grey.

I want to feel his mouth on mine.

I want Christian Grey.

I want him badly.

I want to feel his hands and mouth on me.

I could go on … but I think James clearly exhibited Ana’s longing for this ‘Adonis’ who wants to control her. The fact that she apparently cannot drive home in her Beetle,  cannot live without an Apple MacBook Pro and Blackberry (nice product placement there) and how she has to occasionally call him ‘sir’ during sex makes it difficult for me to see him as anything but a sexually dominant creature completely overrun by his need for power over others.

“Oh… please… Christian… Sir… Please”

However, James does make something of an effort to open Grey up to more redeeming ‘shades’. The ‘care’ he shows her is wholly permeated by his need to control, but he does try, however ineffectually, to warn her against getting involved with him:

Anastasia, you should steer clear of me. I’m not the man for you.

Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me?
Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks… (Nice excerpt from Tess of the d’Urbervilles there)

My tastes are very singular. You should steer clear of me.

Predictably, Grey cannot stay away from this blue-eyed pale virgin, who in turn is uncontrollably drawn to and obsessed with this ‘Greek god’ and his ‘blazing’ grey eyes. Ana always seems to notice his eyes and the way they hypnotise her – they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time staring into each other’s eyes, but never progress from this compulsive staring to an exchange of emotional connection. Clearly, they are drawn to each other’s bodies and needs for sexual gratification, but Ana throws her ‘hearts and flowers’ away for this man, agreeing to be him ‘sub’, while he agrees to try being ‘more’.

Any redeeming emotional connection is absent though as James tediously and unimaginatively recounts the sexually explicit trysts between Ana and Christian, the detail varying only with the altering nature of the devices and implements with which they interact. The language is far from inventive:
… my hips move tentatively to meet his. He speeds up. I moan, and he pounds on, picking up speed, merciless, a relentless rhythm…

James’ literary style is equally banal when it comes to describing Ana’s sexual climaxes:

My thoughts are scattering… there’s only sensation… only him… only me… oh, please… I stiffen.
… exploding around him as I climax and splinter into a million pieces underneath him. And as he comes, he calls out my name, thrusting hard, then stilling as he empties himself into me.


Ana and Christian also have this unbelievably handy talent of both climaxing one after the other, the literary sex gods are definitely working their magic to construct a most unlikely tale.

One of the very few successful aspects to the book was the way James managed to capture Anastasia’s feelings of sexual awakening and empowerment at the moment when she loses her virginity. Ana’s conscious thoughts split into a ‘subconscious’ of reason and ‘inner goddess’ whose lust for sex is insatiable, which I actually found a mildly welcome escape from the otherwise obsessive thoughts she has about this man who controls her thoughts and actions.

No! Screams my subconscious… my inner goddess nods silently Zen-like agreement with her.

Yet the predictability resumes here, with phrases like  ‘My inner goddess is thrilled’  repeated. I found it interesting that ‘Ana’ is a pale, innocent, virgin who can’t stay away from a handsome, but dangerous man? I’m sure I’ve read something very similar before. Doesn’t Twilight by Stephanie Meyer feature a relationship between a dangerous boy who can’t keep himself away from a virginal, pale beauty?

The fact that 50 Shades begun its life as Twilight fanfiction would be the reason behind the glaring similarities between them, but it doesn’t really help 50 Shades be a revolutionary book in its own right. I think its explicit sexual nature is probably the only thing that does that.

Another rather disturbing feature of the narrative is how Christian Grey’s relationship and sexual preferences are pathologised as the effects of trauma. Grey, who’s handsome, rich, ’50 shades’ of moody and freakishly controlling has had a troubling introduction to the world of sexual relationships:

“One of my mother’s friends seduced me when I was fifteen’.

‘I was her submissive for six years’.

This is the reason given for his exclusively BDSM-style relationships which are fulfilled in his ‘playroom’ of ‘toys’. I find this really disconcerting. BDSM can be and is practiced by individuals with no psychological problems. But through making Grey a tortured soul whose only way of appreciating sex is through bondage and pain, it makes BDSM appear not just taboo, but as a sort of illness. The ‘taboo’ nature of the sex in 50 Shades is clearly one of the reasons for the success of the novel. James opens up her readers to a world of tantalising fantasies involving, secrecy and passionate encounters. But attributing fully or wholly being psychologically disturbed as a reason for the BDSM is casting a negative psychological light on the regular everyday people who practice BDSM or bondage. This just doesn’t feel right to me.

50 Shades only slightly explores the idea of female sexual empowerment in relationships. Although I’m sure feminists would slam this book into the dirt, James tries to convey Ana as someone who is agreeing to the relationship for the chance of developing a loving relationship as well as for sexual gratification. But ultimately it’s a weak relationship. Although Ana does break the relationship off when the belt to whip her comes out, she fails to really embrace a new sexual freedom with this restrictive man and his contract.

I didn’t feel like Ana gained anything from the relationship apart from a false sense of companionship, lots of kinky sex and sore buttocks. Nor did she have any sense of becoming more provocative, but on occasion manages to her own surprise, to assert a slight dominance.

“I need the money that Taylor got for my beetle.” My voice is clear and calm, devoid of emotion… extraordinary.
This idea of their relationship reaching an equilibrium I believe is the subject of the next two novels. But for 50 Shades of Grey it ends with them apart, Ana sobbing into her pillow. I didn’t feel compelled to get these sequels to find out what happens.

Although this book has become an extraordinary sales topper, it isn’t anything groundbreaking. Nor I must acknowledge were 19 year olds like myself the intended target audience. But 50 Shades has definitely got some kind of appeal in it, because I managed to finish it, wanting perhaps just vaguely to know what hurdle would come up next for Ana … even if it was only a new sexual perversion.

One Response to “Fifty Shades of Grey: The review to read so you don’t have to read the book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: