Handcuffs and whips and orgasms…Oh My!
I was in a bookstore a week ago and a middle-aged woman came in and asked the assistant for the second Shades of Grey book. “I never read books but I couldn’t put this down,” she said. I thought that if this book is getting adult non-readers into reading it can’t be too bad, so took the plunge.
Pretty much every negative comment about the novel here is true and I am bewildered as to how anyone could have the patience and tolerance to finish and enjoy it. The prose is flat and tasteless, for example: “Curiosity kicks in big time”. This is lazy writing. The characters are cardboard cut-outs. Grey is too good to be true, excellent at, like, everything, and so hot. Ana is dim, spraying repetitive clichés all over the place and blundering about carelessly. The supposed big attraction, the sex scenes, are cookie-cutter depictions that might have been lifted from porn fiction or video sites. Other weaknesses are more minor irritations, such as the English vernacular that James uses, e.g. “Laters, Baby”. Or, my favourite, the lengthy list of rules set down for their relationship and her role as a submissive.
However, the book is also disturbing, unintentionally, as I cannot believe that James has the capacity for subtlety or thematic depth. Grey is morally not much better than a paedophile, using power, wealth, status and influence to get what he wants, which is control over Ana. He flatters her, buys her expensive gifts, overwhelms her with his accomplishments, so he can possess her. This is an abusive relationship. He tells her at one point that she is the one who has power over him, a predictable and egregious abuser’s rhetorical gambit. Everything he does for her he really does for himself. He is a creepy stalker. He preys on Ana’s naiveté and uses his sexual experience and her attraction to him to manipulate her. He gives his actions a veneer of fairness and consensuality with his agreements and rules while binding the girl to him. Yes, she is an adult and a willing participant, but I found his insinuation of himself into her life and his exercise of power to be distasteful. Although Ana eventually leaves, her subjugation to him has been profound; her small rebellious acts of questioning him about his past simply highlight how little agency she has. I do not know how female readers can be okay with a woman who trades sexual exploitation for…well, it’s hard to see what she gets from the relationship apart from lots of orgasms (these are hilarious) and a great deal of distress. The car and the other gifts are simply part of his manipulation – he’s rich, they mean nothing except to enforce gratitude. He does other exciting things to make her happy, but it’s always a big deal, a stunt to be impressive, and thereby coercive.
Surprisingly, at times I thought there might be a real novel lurking within Fifty Shades of Grey. James might have explored dark eros and given us some meaningful insights. But this novel is too self-important and humourless. The sex scenes are not erotic or exploratory, but grindingly mechanistic and Ana’s responses increasingly mind-numbing and risible.
The last word comes from a young woman serving in a café who I mentioned the book to: “ I tried to read it but I couldn’t finish because it was so boring”.