Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

WARNING: THE REVIEW BELOW CONTAINS ALLUSIONS TO SEX, SEXUAL PRACTICES AND THE ODD BIT OF SWEARING. IF YOU ARE THE EASILY-OFFENDED TYPE, DON’T MOAN THAT I DIDN’T WARN YOU.

In a bizarre sort of way, it’s Twilight for the Adults Only section; more of which later, right now tradition dictates I give some sort of curiosity-rousing blurb:  Anastasia Steele  is not a happy bunny. Owing to flu, her best friend cannot interview Christian Grey – an enigmatic, domineering entrepreneur that’s self-made to the tune of a few billion dollars – for the university paper. Grey is not the kind of man who gives out interviews regularly, so the naturally gauche and clumsy Anastasia is sent to ask the questions instead; naturally, she thinks the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster and cannot wait to return to the relative obscurity of  her finals and her part-time job. But, who should turn up with an eye to getting to know our heroine better? Boris Johnson, (just kidding, just kidding – it’s the suspiciously handsome Grey). But it turns out there’s more to Grey than meets the eye, and he leads her down a path that will take her to places that she could never imagine.

Okay, so much for that. I think it’s no great secret by now that sadomasochistic sexuality makes up the body of the book; I would say “an exploration of”, but trust me – it really doesn’t go that deep. There’s a couple of OH-my-God-this-is-so-wrong-that-it’s-right moments of confusion, and that’s about it to be honest. The trouble is, for a book which features so much sex, it really isn’t sexy in the least – despite James’ infinite ingenuity about time, place, toys etc. it becomes depressingly routine and repetitive very quickly; in the words of Angela Carter it’s all “reduced to the cold white meat of the contract”, – which I wouldn’t have minded as a viewpoint, if the narrator wasn’t so desperately aiming for the erotic and failing. It doesn’t help that James very quickly creates her own linguistic clichés within the sex scenes, with repetition of Grey “finding his release”, “releasing his load” into Ana’s “sex.” This is a pet hate of mine. As a general rule, I think “sex” as a noun for female genitalia ought to be banned – as it is exceedingly precious and laughable; but I think when you’re writing a book that’s trying so hard to be revolutionary, S&M and reflects a philosophy of “fucking, not love-making”, it really, really doesn’t work. Writers, take note: Women have vaginas, cunts, man-traps – call them what you will, we have anything but “sexes”down there.

Now the people who are only interested in the sex have stopped reading, I can talk about the rest of the book. And it’s the characters, and a little bit of the setting that Twilight-fans past and present will feel a persistent twitching sense of déjà vu – because Christian Grey and Ana Steele are only slightly more grown-up versions of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. With issues on their issues. Don’t believe me? Ana and Bella are both clumsy, socially awkward, brunettes with a thing for jeans and trainers. Too circumstantial? Throw in the fact that both have a taste for “Classic British literature”, domineering men, are fancied by every man they meet (despite apparently being nothing special to look at), scrub up very well and have scatty mothers and emotionally-absent father figures and things begin to look a little suspect. Please add to this, that both Edward and Grey are control freaks with food issues, dark secrets, with stupidly rich, talented and good-looking adoptive families and suspiciously similar looks. Bear in mind that this is all set in and around the Seattle/Olympic peninsular area. It’s frankly a little insulting to realise that you are being thought of as twi-hard fodder, a way for publishers to make an extra buck out of those older teens that got an illicit thrill out of the off-page sex in the last Twilght book.

The plot works out well enough at first, not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman meets dangerously attractive man she can’t help but want to be with. Then they sleep together. And things get silly. One is under the impression that Grey is meant to be a complex, brooding, Byronic anti-hero, and that Ana is the Justine-like figure of sympathy and corruptible purity that might save him from himself; neither work out as either.  Grey ends up as a sort of tantrum-throwing Mills & Boon alpha-ape, and Ana as a rather irritating, irrational and whining figure that pipes up at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. There are a couple of tokenistic stabs at feminism, frankly James shouldn’t have bothered. The ending is left nice and open for the next book, but frankly I can predict what’s going to happen in the next two books just as easily as I could in this one. I’m not going to bother seeing if I’m right.

1 out of 5, the Marquis de Sade can rest easy in his grave as the unrivalled pornographer par excellence. You have to respect the level of research that went into this book, and the fact that someone took the time to write it, hence one point.

Over and out.

Coda: Doing a little back-up research online, it turns out that Fifty Shades of Grey began life as a Twilight fanfic. And now Fifty Shades fan-fiction has started popping up. Literature has officially started eating its own tail – Mad Book Disease will follow.