“Oh dear, ” my inner Goddess mutters as I unpeel the layers of bubble wrap concealing my latest girly whim: it’s this year’s summer bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. Very juicy, or so I’ve been told. My Facebook friends all seem really enthusiastic about it anyway. I finger the first book out of its smooth black box and inhale the inebriating scent of freshly printed ink, while the boyfriend and three cats shuffle around in the kitchen behind me, curiously amused. I have a mountain of lofty reading on Modernism to get through before the end of the summer, and I figured some crunchy mummyporn would be a nice distraction. And, heck, do I really need to find another justification for wanting to read the book that provoked a wave of babybooming sexual activity in most of the English-speaking world? Without further ado, I fix myself an ice-cool drink (“I’m going to need this,” I think to myself), lie down on the sofa in my bay window (“may as well make an evening of it,” I shrug), and turn to Chapter One.
Fifteen pages later, I’ve met Miss Anastasia Steele; a mousey twenty-one year old student in English literature who lives in Vancouver with her flatmate, Kate Kavanagh, a wealthy pretty smart budding blonde journalist who just so happens to have come down with a rotten cold on the very day of a much-awaited interview with Mr Christian Grey – the CEO of Christian Grey Enterprises (hand over mouth, “oh no!”). But fear not, our bland virgin heroine, Ana, is going to save the day, and drive from Vancouver to Seattle in order to interview hot shots for her sniffling friend. Oops, did I say Mr Grey was hot? Well, there, now you know. Grey is mega hot. He’s mega rich too. He plays the piano like Apollo. He drives a helicopter. He listens to Mozart after sex, and Kings of Leon before. Aaaand – being such a generous soul – he donates large sums of money to charity to feed the poor. Oh, yeah, and, accessorily, he’s only twenty-seven. Ok, I’m kind of spoiling it for you here, as one must read on beyond Chapter One in order to find out all these interesting and somewhat terrifyingly cliché-ridden details regarding our main man, but I figured that since you’ve read my review up to here, I may as well give you a little sumt’n sumt’n.
Chapter One is the incipit. The story begins in medias res, with Anastasia scowling at her unsubmissive hair and scolding herself in italics : “I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet”. I like mirror scenes in books, and so I read on. Since I know that the book tells the story of Ana’s submissive love affair with Christian Grey, I smile ; well done E.L James, I like the double-entendre on the term “wet” (girly giggle). Ahah, Ana arrives in the twenty story office building, “all curved glass and steel” – good one James, “tall” and “curved”, no idea what you’re referring to there ! So far, we see where the story’s going, but we’re willing to follow : Jane Doe pulls celebrity: your average teenage girl’s fantasy . I can see how this appeals to women who desperately need to escape their mediocre nine-to-five-then-pick-up-the-kids-cook-dinner-wash-up-and-crash-out-before-starting-all-over-again humdrum. But I’m sure there’s more to come; maybe a death, or an enigma to resolve, or some suspense… I’m on page 17 and into Chapter Two, resolved to give this book a chance.
The trouble is, after a couple of chapters, and still no action in sight, my glass of iced water now tepid in the stuffy air, I feel like taking a break. I prefer Kate Kavanagh to Anastasia, and Mr Grey isn’t really doing it for me. He may be hot, but he comes across as a sort of domineering daddy-figure… not exactly sure what this reveals about E.L James…
Chapter Six : after having flown Ana from Vancouver to Seattle in his personal helicopter (of course), Grey opens up a little to his belle. He’s had a difficult childhood, and he confesses he’s developed a “perverted” sexuality – preferring spanking, fisting, and chains to sweet melodious lurve (hmm, so we’re in for a pink teenage dreamy romance spangled with hues of hard s & m porn… interesting). He doesn’t do “the girlfriend thing”, and yet Ana gets to meet his mummy right after having been raucously deflowered (James omits no details, for which we are very grateful at this point). Sadly, what could have been one unsullied student’s initiatic journey – think, say, Jane Eyre at Vancouver University meets CEO sex-fanatic Rochester (the possibilities are endless…) – turns out to be the story of a somewhat naive twenty-plus year-old virgin who, even after having succumbed to the joys of being on the receiving end of aggressive sexy spanking, continues to “flush” at the mere sound of a naughty word.
Grey too seems oddly contradictory, though sadly not in the way of Dostoevsky’s heroes. Rather, in the way of a fast-food burger : saucy, but predictable and bitter. He’s a pure product of American capitalism, and yet his main concern in life – other than pounding Miss Steele – is seeing to it that the poor starving masses in Darfur are fed and looked after by his servants while he lavishes his sub with fancy gadgets from Apple Store. I feel myself nodding off, but then on page 286 he gives her a good hiding, and I want to stick around a little to see where this is going. Except, once the boisterous ordeal is over with, Ana starts feeling guilty for having enjoyed the flagellation, and sits tearful in front of her computer for the next eight pages while the reader painstakingly endures an e-mail conversation between the two heroes in which Ana explains exactly why being tied and spanked made her feel debased, and Christian psychoanalyzes her like so : “do you really feel like this, or do you think you ought to feel like this ? Two very different things.” And then a little further on : “punishment spanking hurts more than sensual spanking – so that’s about as hard as it gets, unless, of course, you commit some major transgression, in which case I’ll use some implement to punish you with.” Before finishing off his absurd rambling with the conclusion that “I need to be able to contact you at all times (…), I figured you needed a BlackBerry”.
And then, there’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Every couple of chapters, James throws in a Hardy quote, not in a complex cross-referenced type of way, but more in a “I-read-Tess-back-in-highschool-and-I-think-I’ll-just-bung-in-a-couple-of-quotes-cos-that’s-how-we-roll” type of way. And I can’t help wondering whether James is comparing Ana to Tess, or herself to Hardy; in both cases it’s pretentious of her. At this point – somewhere around page 330, I hear my inner Goddess yanking clumps of hair out of her head from way down there in “my subconscious” (bloody hell woman, if my subconscious spoke to me as much as Ana’s speaks to her, I’d be the Prophet Moses by now), and I decide to call it a day. Frustrated? Heck no. If my boyfriend and I spent as much time blabbing on about sex as Ana and Grey do before getting it on, we’d be blue in the face.
I guess what I’m trying to say is… good for E.L James. I mean, you’d have to be cruel to hate on a working mum whose midlife crisis consists in a harmless series of kinky notes jotted down in her cell-phone (a BlackBerry, maybe ;-)) on the way to and from work. The poor woman probably didn’t know what had hit her when she discovered how many copies of her erotic scribblings had been sold in the first week of the novel’s release. In fact, the working woman that I am even salutes James ironic success – ironic because, thanks to a badly-written book about a relationship in which a bland and naive female character gets completely pummeled by a highly intelligent hunk of a man (a frickin’ rich one at that), James has managed to outsell a whole bunch of budding smart male writers. I guess one could say that with Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L James has taken a giant leap for herself, and stepped back a century or two for her female counterparts. Indeed, I find it somewhat woeful that Ana’s personality should be reduced to her love for longitudinal objects, and saying “jeez”. I thought she was supposed to be a student in English literature. I thought students in English literature were trained to have a critical mind. And what about her career? She seems to have put everything on hold to exult in all the exquisite gifts her billion-dollar baby lavishes upon her (did someone say “ho”?).
I don’t care particularly about the fact that James portrays women in such unflattering hues of grisaille. I worry more about the fact that so many women – working women, independent women, strong women, mothers, intellectual women – seek refuge in a book that actually says point blank “we women want someone to debase us”. What does this say about male and female roles in today’s society? Are we women really happy? Do we really want to be superwomen? Do we really want to defy men professionally? Are we really in touch with our sexuality? Perhaps I’m over-thinking the Fifty Shades phenomenon. Perhaps all we want is a tingle in the loins, just like our gentlemen friends, who have no trouble turning to bawdiness on a lonesome eve when out of herbal tea and a good book. Be that as it may, I can’t help wondering what it is about Christian Grey that excites all my lady friends. He’s well-hung, sure, but any woman who’s even remotely in touch with her sexuality knows full-well that size certainly ain’t all there is to it ;-)! And, ladies, if you think you’ll climax when someone you fancy simply shouts out your name (yup, James dares to go down that path), shout me an e-mail sweethearts, and I’ll see what I can do for ya.