This book has surpassed its humble origins, and if you can overlook an under-defined heroine and clunky prose, you’ll find a lot to enjoy, especially in the bedroom.
This series has engendered some very polarised opinions. Some people refuse to read it on principle because of its origins as Twilight fanfic (posted as Master of the Universe). As dirty as I feel to think that just a pair of fangs and a sparkle may be all that separates me from the Twihards, my opinion is what it is. Fifty Shades of Grey hit the mark for me.
I originally read the e-book a few months ago, looking for BDSM smut and as long as the story (and especially the sex scenes) can convince me of the inherent conflict, connection and creativity between the hero and heroine, I might not notice or care about things that irritate other readers, such as the first person/present tense writing, hero Christian Grey naming his company Grey Enterprises Holdings when either Holdings or Enterprises would have sufficed (Holdings gets my vote), or Ana describing Christian’s ‘cool, cold lips’.
Although the quality of the writing is questionable, I sometimes wonder if that isn’t part of its appeal, lending a greater sense of intimacy because it feels less like a professionally published book than someone’s diary.
Bella Swan goes to college and discovers BDSM
Fifty Shades has a shaky start, opening with our heroine Anastasia Steele trying to ‘brush [her] hair into submission’ so she can ‘restrain’ it in a ponytail. And she’s selflessly putting aside her need to study for her finals to interview a billionaire for her friend, who is beautiful and accomplished and someone Ana can’t say no to.
In Christian Grey’s office she notes a mosaic of paintings of mundane objects shown in such painstaking detail, ‘[r]aising the ordinary to the extraordinary’, another hint that our heroine really is a normal girl, but that there is somehow more to her than appearances suggest and Christian is just the man to notice her.
The interview is entertaining, but Ana is so inexcusably unprepared that he calls her on it several times, leading her to think the interview did not go well. Although he’s told her that he will be presenting the degrees at her graduation ceremony, she frequently consoles herself with the mistaken belief that she never has to see him again.
You get the idea that I have trouble taking Ana seriously sometimes, but that’s okay because she takes herself seriously enough for both of us. She reads classic British literature, blushes the colour of The Communist Manifesto and feels like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and got burned. Her ‘inner goddess’ and ‘subconscious’ references are cheap Freudian pop psychology that wankerishly attempt to make her seem intelligent and educated.
I hadn’t noticed until I later read the print edition that Ana is a very Bella-like character. She’s ‘ordinary’ in the way that doesn’t compare to poised, coiffed beauty, yet she has two guys whom she describes as cute and hot, whose interest she doesn’t return. Even though the hero is surrounded by feminine perfection, he chooses her because he sees something more than her appearance suggests. She’s overly selfless in letting her friend boss her around.
Ana is clumsy, but only in ways that draw Christian’s attention to her. She bursts through his door and promptly trips over, landing in that most submissive of positions: on her hands and knees.
And she has no gag reflex. What. A. Shock.
Although I didn’t see much in Ana to identify with, at least she didn’t get in my way too much. Except she never met a drop of alcohol she didn’t like and there’s always a reason for her to drink, such as leaving the house, packing up the house, and seeing Christian or her mother. For someone who cares about Ana’s health, Christian is an alcoholic enabler.
50 shades of compelling
Despite the less than flattering things I’ve said so far, Fifty Shades works because it weaves a spellbinding Cinderella fantasy of an ordinary girl capturing the attention of an extraordinary man. She doesn’t know the territory of BDSM relationships or the parameters Christian sets, so she asks things of him no one else could get away with.
And here is where I have a problem with Ana. As harsh as it sounds, she herself is nothing special. Ana tends to drift until she is given something to react to and Christian fits that bill perfectly. Her charm for Christian comes from within himself and where he is emotionally. She challenges him because he allows her more liberties than he does anyone else even though he does not like to be defied. It’s not about attributes unique to her, it’s more about the unique circumstance she happens to be in where she seems submissive, but can cry ignorance because she is still being trained. The D/s protocol would protect Christian’s barriers so that no one else but Ana could ever challenge them. She hides behind Kate’s confidence and her own insecurities so that she comes off as submissive until actually asked to submit.
While I’m reading, I’m happy to be swept up into Christian’s whirlwind, being average and ordinary myself, but it’s when I give any real thought to their dynamic that I perceive an imbalance that I find unrealistic. Like Twilight, the concept is fantastic in theory but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The real drawcard here is Christian, and author E L James sets off her jewel well by shrouding him in the mystery of Ana’s POV. I don’t care that Ana spends almost every waking hour thinking about Christian because I keep waiting for him to return to the page as well.
When Christian shows Ana his playroom, he explains that he derives pleasure from her trust and submission. When she asks what she gets out of the deal, he says simply, ‘Me.’ It sounds like that is all he has to offer, when he is actually offering everything he is. He is less sure of himself in these moments and this vulnerability makes him endearing and adorable even as he poses a very sexual threat.
He compromises to accommodate Ana’s inexperience and in turn experiences as many emotional firsts as she does sexual ones. Anything he says he doesn’t do with his subs, he does for her just because she asks. As a lover, he is intensely focussed and gorgeously possessive. Even in winter, these scenes should be read with a cold drink handy!
While she has sexual limits, Christian has limits in intimacy. She is not allowed to touch him, except his hair. His former mistress showed him a form of love he found acceptable because he saw himself as the flawed one within a perfect family. Maybe he still hates himself. He can be hesitant and vulnerable in reaching out to Ana, seeming to expect rejection. I want to find out more about his ‘fifty shades of fucked up’ and how he got to be who he is.
He lavishes her with expensive but practical gifts. Because he can afford to, he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t indulge his need to provide for his sub. There is a side of him that loves to take charge and inflict pain (within the sub’s threshold), but he is also a protector who saves Ana when she is drunk and feeds people in underdeveloped countries.
Most BDSM stories will focus on the submissive and her struggle to accept her desires, while the dominant more or less has his shit together. By contrast, Ana feels some justifiable confusion, yet she is arguably together and Christian is the one with issues, but he is always responsible enough to put Ana’s needs first—a must for both a dominant and romantic hero.
It’s in email exchanges (often entertaining and humorous as well as Ana’s most direct and insightful form of communication because they are less confronting and immediate than a face to face or phone conversation) where Ana opens up about her feelings and misgivings that we get a sense of who she is and why she appeals to Christian. He values her innocence and wit and finds her self-contained. With him in her life, there is less room for Kate to boss her around and she is considerably less bossy now she is dating Christian’s brother Elliott. Ana certainly keeps stuff to herself but reacts far more than she initiates, which makes it seem like she lacks personality. I’m still conflicted as to whether she in fact lacks personality or only appears to.
Don’t ask me if James got the BDSM right because I don’t feel I can answer that. I’m not in the lifestyle and basically feel that an author can get away with not technically fitting a label if she can convince me it suits her character. For example, I firmly believe that what Vishous used to want from his subs should not be considered traditional BDSM because of how little his partner’s individuality is considered, but it works within the context J. R. Ward creates and there’s something about him that enables him to get away with stuff I wouldn’t put up with from anyone else.
Yay or nay?
Without having read the rest of the trilogy (yet!), I’d say that Fifty Shades has surpassed its humble origins, and if you can overlook an under-defined heroine and clunky prose, you’ll find a lot to enjoy, especially in the bedroom. I’ve been asked if I would recommend it to a first-time romance reader, but even though I enjoyed it, I don’t feel it’s representative enough of the genre for me to say yes.
Who might enjoy it: Fans of smut, Twilight, Cinderella and Pretty Woman who prefer an interesting story and kinky sex over good writing
Who might not enjoy it: Readers who expect well-defined heroines, traditional romance and quality literature