Arrow, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-09-957993-9
Contemporary Erotica, 2012 (Reissue)
If you haven’t heard by now, Fifty Shades of Grey is an alternate universe Twilight fanfiction shaved and varnished for, first, self publication just last year. Two more books followed, and everyone talked about it so much that these books flew off the shelves. Naturally, a big publisher soon picked up the series, and now, these books are reissued with spanking new covers that could have very well been done by an art department intern using free stock photos. The books available today are, in fact, reissues, although I’m not sure whether there had been any significant revisions made to the content.
To date, these books continue to find an audience. Mainstream critics tried to measure these books against the literary merits of their “emo young scruffy writer” du jour and flailed around from EL James’s assault on modern sensibilities. Some self-proclaimed feminists clutched at straws and insisted that these books are an affront to the angry vagina movement for daring to portray women as happy submissives consenting to swallow on cue as per the dictates of a contract with a hated foul member of the rampaging patriarchy. Everyone else mocks the books, most of them only having heard of those books from other people, and fans of the books form a defensive circle against the marauding haters.
In other words, the mainstream folks have finally discovered BDSM erotica and alternate universe fanfiction. As a member of the romance community, I can only look on and yawn. We have done the whole hand-wringing “penis enters vagina – look, the world ends!” hysteria and calling for the tarring of those six-toed foully immoral authors with their filthy imagination about… oh, six or seven years ago. Fifty Shades of Grey may scald the panties of mainstream people who generally turn their noses up at romance, but honestly, I don’t see what the fuss is. This book, the first in a trilogy, doesn’t do anything that any middling erotic romance hadn’t done before.
The plot is… ugh. If you can’t tell by her name, heroine Anastasia Rose Steele is one of the biggest Mary Sue wretches around. This is a wretch who claims to have never been kissed before, citing self-esteem issues (“I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, the list goes on”), and yet, every guy she meets wants to dry hump her (those are the good guys), force themselves on her (the creepy jerks), or do both after getting her to sign a multiple-paged contract, complete with appendices, consenting to a list of things ranging from swallowing without protest to being suspended from the ceiling to taking a whole fist up her rear end (that’s the hero). So traumatized by the fact that she can’t find a man who makes her want to bend over and draw unicorns using the foams of the soap on the floor that she actually runs to the darkest corner of her room to sob and cry about her tragic existence. No, I’m not joking.
Ana is, naturally, a literature student, a smart one too. Since she can’t be too much like Bella Swan or Stephanie Meyer will order her lawyers to tear out every strand of hair from Ms James’s scalp, Ana is a big fan of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Just like how Bella imagines that she is Catherine wailing at the top of her lungs for Heathcliff to open the window and let her ghost into the manor, Ana is supposed to have some parallels to Tess. I don’t know, I don’t see it. The only parallel I see is that, like Tess, Ana is soon going to a “maiden no more”, haw haw. Then again, I’m not a literature expert like Bella Swan.
So, despite having little prior experience, Ana waltzes easily into the role of a substitute interviewer for her friend, who, like every other character in this book, exists only to accentuate Ana’s awesomeness. This friend is supposed to interview Christian Grey, a billionaire-zillionaire sort at a very young age who doesn’t waste much time stalking our heroine and yelling at her over the phone when he’s not using ALL CAPS in his emails to her. He’s the masterful type, you see. Ana, the paragon of purity, is so overwhelmed by his masculinity that she quickly puts out to him without a fight. So enamored is he of our heroine’s pure pinky-glittery furnace that he pretty much whips out his favorite contract to our heroine without much ado. You have to read the contract yourself, seriously. Go look it up in a bookstore if you don’t want to buy this book. In my UK edition, that’s from page 165 to 175. Yes, it’s that long.
Ana, who has never been kissed until she meets Christian and has sex with him ten seconds later, is soon going “OMG, so hot, so hot, so hot!” She’s a Mary Sue, after all. She may have no libido – she is aghast at Christian’s assumption that she masturbates – but all the hero has to do is to whip it out of his pants and she immediately enters Kitty Bella the OMGOMGOMG-AI-YAI-YAI Sex Bot mode.
EL James tries to introduce some angst – Christian was a sad boy from a broken home who was saved from the dark path, thanks to anal intercourse with a much older woman when he was younger, but ah, now he will never love again, much to Ana’s dismay – but I don’t think people who are still reading after page 150 will get too worked up over that insipid drama. It’s not like the sex will stop once Ana and Christian decide to break up and make up long enough to stretch the story into three books, after all. So who cares about what motivates Ana to run away from Christian or whether anal sex with a married woman has truly damaged that silly little man-child? As long as they keep boinking, I don’t think anyone’s complaining. EL James, quality author of the season? Whatever, go away. Bring on Sue Fanny BDSMeyer, purveyor of quality smut instead!
Speaking of the sex scenes, they vary in terms of quality, if I can use that word. Some scenes are actually pretty hot, while other scenes are unintentionally hilarious due to Christian’s over-the-top one-dimensional “Look at me! I have the almighty penis of angst! How dare you stay out late without me around? COME HOME AND FELICITATE ME! I’m a master of the universe! By the power of my mighty twenty-inch Sword of Greyskull… HOOOOHHHH!” act. Seriously, that guy actually uses his office email to talk dirty to Ana, so every naughty email ends with a preset signature that says:
CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.
What kind of freak will sign off his personal emails like that? I won’t be surprised if he one day insists that Ana scream out “Christian Grey, CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc!” during crucial moments when she’s in bed with him.
There are some rather, er, intriguing scenes that seem designed to cater to people with specific tastes, such as that sex scene that involves a tampon and… uh, stuff that necessitates the use of a tampon in the first place. But I leave that to others to rejoice or balk at. Rule 34, you know. Let’s just move on.
Still, these sex scenes by themselves can hardly sustain my interest in this story. There is little compelling drama to make me feel as if I need to read the next book right away. The plot is, after all, a silly Bondage Boy meets Sue tale with contrived and fake angst on his part to keep the misery going. One reason I keep turning the pages is because I find myself trying to figure the author out. There are some moments that seem to poke fun at the characters and the absurd angst they are mired in, and I still can’t make up my mind whether EL James is laughing at me or laughing with me all the way to the bank. Oh, and I have to say this: unlike Bella, Ana actually has a sense of humor and she actually stands up to Christian now and then outside the bedroom. By the second half of the book, Ana seems to have come into her own instead of being merely a repainted version of Bella Swan. Christian is still ridiculous, though.
Fifty Shades of Grey is very easy to mock, but even then, the fun wears thin after a while when it’s obvious that this story has barely any decent plot. The emotional conflicts aren’t believable and I can’t bring myself to care about these characters. The sex scenes are easily the most memorable aspect of this story, and even then, they often bleed purple and slip into unintentional comedy territory. I came to this book because of the hype, stayed for the sex, and ended up feeling used and vaguely dissatisfied.