With the help of Iron Man and powerfully caffeinated tea, I have survived Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James.
I deserve a medal.
My original plan was to wait on this book until some time had passed and I had a bit less distraction in the way of nice weather and school work. I was also going to wait and see if Fifty Shades was the most popular bad book in the poll I put up in this post. But once one vote came in for the erotic bestseller, I decided to check out Fifty Shades, just so I had an idea of what to expect.
I realized very quickly that unless I finished the book as soon as possible, I was going to put it down and never go near it again. So I plowed through it, craving something stronger than my tea- unfortunately vodka is difficult to procure when underage in America, and I had no money to make the purchase anyway. So I turned to Iron Man for a much more attractive and interesting CEO, and with that playing in the background, I was able to get through this drivel.
Where do I even begin with the problems of this book? I could talk about the wretched present tense narrative that forces us to see the non-existent events through the badly distorted and completely clueless eyes of the Bella Swan expy. I could talk about Christian Grey and his abusive antics that make me want to bring in the Hulk to use him as a punching bag. I could talk about how the secondary characters have more depth and likeable qualities than our two main leads. I could talk about the horribly un-sexy sex scenes, or the lackluster prose, or the complete lack of conflict. In fact, I do talk about them in a bit more depth in this video review; there were many things to complain about in this book, far too many to be addressed in a single blog post.
But I think the biggest problem overall with this book lies in the fact that it stems from the idea that an abusive partner can be changed through the power of love.
Why am I labeling this as the book’s biggest problem? For one thing, it’s one of the oldest clichés of romance fiction in existence. It’s also one of the most potentially dangerous. No one outside force can change someone who is fixed on doing something wrong. It’s possible for the wrongdoer to change, yes- but the change can only come from within that person. There might be outside influences or factors, but ultimately the ability to set oneself straight from doing something wrong is a choice that only that wrongdoer can make. No one else can make that decision.
This book runs on the idea that Ana can change Christian (and here I’m taking into account the entire series, not just the first book). Fifty Shades ends with Ana breaking off her and Christian’s relationship- which would have had me cheering had I not known that they are married by the third book in this series. I am not familiar with the details of their coming together and have no intention of suffering through the other two wastes of paper in this series, but from what I can glean from the details, it does appear that Ana’s influence caused Christian Grey to change (if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me, though you will need hard textual evidence to convince me).
Given what I have seen in the first book, there is absolutely no way the relationship between Ana and Christian can work. He wants her for sex, and she wants a relationship (or so she claims; given that the only thing she seems to notice about Grey is his sex with her, I find this very hard to believe). He is willing to make concessions for her not because he wants a relationship with her, but because he wants to keep her around and she suits his sexual taste like none of his partners have before her. Ana and Christian are not incompatible because she prefers vanilla sex and he bondage- they are incompatible because they are looking for fundamentally different things from their interactions. Since Ana has less backbone than a salted slug, she can never quite bring herself to insist that Grey treat her better, and only once does she make any attempt at explaining her views on a relationship. It is a sign of how clueless she is that this attempt is made via email when she is across the country. More than that, there is almost no effort made by Ana to explain her views on relationships. Indeed, this girl has almost no views on anything other than how badly she wants Christian. She has no sexual experiences whatsoever, actually does not know the meaning of the term “vanilla sex,” and thinks Christian means an X-box when he is about to take her to his bondage chamber (hilariously referred to by Ana as “the Red Room of Pain”).
Given that this girl has no sexual experience, it makes me very skeptical of how Christian treats her in the novel. I will be the first to admit that I have no knowledge whatsoever of the BDSM lifestyle, but one thing I do know is that one of the iron-clad necessities for making a relationship of this kind work is a clear understanding of boundaries and limits between the partners. Ana has no such understanding and Grey does not make it particularly clear- a good ¾ of the story is Ana complaining about how enigmatic he is and how hard his views are to understand. For all Ana knows, he could be completely misleading her about the normal nature of relationships between a dominant and submissive. This never seems to occur to the girl, whose constant thoughts are how much sex with Christian means to her. The only conflict in this book is the conflict of desire between Christian and Ana, and I personally find the way he treats her less of a romantic conflict and more the conflict of an abusive relationship, both in emotional and physical aspects (I know bondage involves physical acts, but there are times where Grey ‘punishes’ Ana even though they have no agreement to be dom and sub).
The fact that this relationship conflict is treated as that of the twisted course of love rather than the actions of a sick and twisted understanding is by far the greatest problem of Fifty Shades of Grey. The poor writing, bland characters, and lack of plot are all secondary problems that are incidental to the fundamental flaw- this book has no consistent understanding of relationships and interactions, and cannot make up its mind as to what it is trying to depict. The result is a mess that tops Twilight in terms of twisted ideals, and makes me despair for humanity as the book sits smugly on the top of the New York Times best-selling list.
The bright side? E L James follows in Stephenie Meyer’s missteps of referencing classical works as parallels to their masterpieces. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the classic in question was Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I feel confident that E L James has emulated Meyer and misunderstood the entire point of this work, so I now have a reason to pick this book up and see how badly it’s been distorted. I look forward to writing that review.
Some other relevant links:
ETA: Jennifer Armintrout’s wonderfully snarky shredding of the sorry mess.