After a few action-packed high-culture days in Toronto at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs biannual conference, I arrived back in Montreal to familiar familial bedlam, co-starring my favourite swisster-in-law and the youngest of her brood, twin two-year-olds, gorgeous and--oh so luckily for all concerned, not mine--at a Mother’s Day barbeque.
Perhaps that’s why I felt no guilt on choosing Fifty Shades of Grey as my next great gulp of prose for ingestion, selected for its “tastes good” rather than “good for you” value.
I was choosing for fun,
I was choosing for play,
I was rationalizing that, to stay in touch with readerland,
I simply must read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Also, I’d given it to the hubster 10 days or so earlier; far as I was concerned, I’d already gotten my money’s worth, even before cracking its spine.
The book’s, I mean.
A couple of weeks back, the New York Times reported that over 10 million copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy had been sold in the USA in the preceding month and a half.
There’s something in these books, like the Twilight series that seeded them, that touches that WWW sweet spot.
Not the World Wide Web, but What Women Want. And if we have any respect for women at all—and we do!—aren’t we are obligated, honour-bound, in fact--to try to figure out what, exactly, is going on here?
At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Am I embarrassed or ashamed to admit I enjoyed the first two novels, number one especially? Would I be telling the world if I was?
Let me put it this way: does it make sense to arbitrarily restrict one’s dietary consumption to caviar, watercress sandwiches, and champagne? Wouldn’t that be a bit…limiting? Some days, I might hanker for filet mignon, other times a greasy hamburger. Doesn’t mean I don’t know that meat isn’t—necessarily—good for me, or that a steady diet of it alone might make me ill.
Well, filet mignon it’s not: Fifty Shades of Grey is the literary equivalent of the popcorn and cotton candy diet, this year’s Thelma & Louise and Twilight, all rolled up and…er, bound together. Another chance for the moralizers among us to throw up their hands in horror at The Turn Today’s Woman has taken, for the gatekeepers of Serious Fiction to turn up their noses at our lousy choices. Another chance for the snooterati to patronize us, the women who make their livings for them. Because the vast majority of books are purchased and read by women. And yet many of our fictional tastes are considered slightly…malodorous.
FSoG is only marginally about BDSM. In essence, it’s an old-fashioned love story, with a few licks of the switch thrown in. The hero—Christian Grey--is brilliant, handsome, young, and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. He flies helicopters, sails, owns multiple homes, cars, and businesses. But he is also hugely flawed—abused and neglected as a child—and he re-enacts this damage in the boudoir. He meets Anastasia Steele, the girl-of-the-dreams-he-hardly-knew-he-had, by accident: Ana’s roommate, Kate, is scheduled to interview Grey for the university paper, but Kate comes down with the flu and Ana steps up to the plate for her friend.
Vintage romance. Almost, dare I say it, Shakespearian.
Grey is mesmerized (shades of Twilight) and hopes to entice Ana into becoming his BDSM submissive. Ana, quickly (but luckily, not too quickly!) seduced, is ready to sign up for a three month contract as a submissive to Grey’s Dominant.
Until she faces the fact that, delightful as all this sex is, she wants…More.
Of course, Grey also falls for Ana, and much of the first two books are about establishing their relationship, and working out the…er, kinks.
But eventually, Grey is ready to abandon all his “kinky fuckery,” as they take to calling it. Until Ana tells him, essentially, not so fast, buster.
Having read the first two books of the trilogy, let me break it down for you: Fifty Shades of Grey is all about erotic tension, the threat of discipline and punishment more than the actual acts themselves. Like all romance, it’s most potently about the yearning, with the usual massive dollops of needless complication thrown in.
It is also clearly based on Twilight, the residue of which remains in repeated corny references to blood—throbbing, pulsing, singing through veins, heating up, etc. Not to mention the endless self-analysis, which can get old pretty quick. At least in James’ version, the reader is frequently distracted from the “whatever shall I dos?” by sex, much of it “vanilla,” in the characters’ words.
FSoG is a sometimes hilarious melange, an homage to the work of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum1, Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series 2, and Helen Fields’ Bridget Jones Diary3.
It’s also often incredibly shallow and occasionally dumbfounding to this long-married middle-aged woman (what is she on about with all this talk of the way Grey’s jeans hang from his hips?? If anyone out there has half a clue, would they please enlighten me? Please send pictures!)
As well as Twilight, I kept thinking Taming of the Shrew, though it’s a good long while since I’ve seen or read the Shakespeare. There is a Katherine in FSoG, but she isn’t the heroine. Besides, Ana isn’t a shrew. A beautiful twenty-two year old virgin, in this day and age, who not only has never had sex, but has never even held hands with a man before? Most surprising of all perhaps, in this Apple-heavy escapade, is her lack of a laptop. But perhaps even the oft-repeated Apple references are symbolic rather than product placement.
Or maybe not. (Maybe they're just symbolic of Twilight, come to think of it!)
If I had to pick a fairy tale that FSoG most resembles, I’d choose Beauty and the Beast. And what a mouth-wateringly lovely Beast he is, if you’re into the young, drop dead gorgeous, self-made millionaire type, trying simultaneously to feed Darfur and wrestle a Tragic Secret Past to the ground. Is it any wonder complications ensue? Fifty Shades is nothing if not formulaic romance, albeit with a riding crop and a couple of pairs of lined handcuffs thrown in for frissons.
Oh and clambering. Lots and LOTS of clambering. I start tracking the word after it appears twice on p. 177 in book one, underlining recurrences on pages 353, 355, 361, 368, 444, 455, 469, 476, and 491.
Note to fledgling authors: avoid this and similar marquee words—“clattering” is another that comes to mind--like the plague.
Also, train yourself to avoid clichés such as “like the plague” like the plague.
E.L. James employs numerous literary references, perhaps to trick us into imagining this is higher-brow fiction than it is. Sort of like giving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the names of Renaissance painters. Or maybe this is just more of the Twilight fan fiction motif, with Tess of the d'Urbervilles subbing for Romeo and Juliet.
It is often guffawingly funny, sometimes unintentionally, as with Briticisms like “rucksack” and “sidelight” (which I think might mean night table lamp), which are corrected in the second volume in the series, as is the clambering, unfortunately. But there are many times when, I am convinced, James is intentionally hilarious.
“Grey—you’re on my shit list and I’m watching you,” BFF Kate at one point hisses at our gorgeous but sadly warped stud muffin.
Then there’s this moment near the end of the first book, as Christian prepares Ana for her sophomore sexploits in the Red Room of Pain (p.487, James’ emphasis):
“I am going to tie you to that bed, Anastasia. But I’m going to blindfold you first and,” he reveals his iPod in his hand, “you will not be able to hear me. All you will hear is the music I am going to play for you.”
Okay. A musical interlude. Not what I was expecting. Does he ever do what I expect? Jeez, I hope it’s not rap.
It is to laugh out loud.
There’s even a character introduced as Mr. J. Hyde near the end of book one.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” snaps my inner cynic. “Mr. Jekyll N. Hyde, perhaps??”
Mercifully, though, the character’s name is Jack, sans N. I know immediately we’ll be hearing more of him in book two (he’s Ana’s new boss, an editor at the small literary publisher where she’ll be a paid intern. Another joke, methinks). And I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something tells me he may be a bit of a villain.
Bottom line: it may lead to a smidge more sex in suburbia—and who could really be against that?—but I’ll wager Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t nearly the threat to the morals of America some are suggesting. Given the mainstreaming of porn the past couple of decades and that our kids witness many thousands of violent fictional murders before attaining the age of majority—with Brad Pitt recently saying he’d have a harder time with his kids seeing him portray a cinematic racist, “than someone who would shoot a guy in the face”-- it seems a little weird to be “oh my-ing” about a smattering of soft core sex.
E.L. James clearly had fun putting it together, so why can’t we simply just lie back and think of England? Why can’t we just swallow it all down in the spirit in which it is offered: as a bit of a lark, Ana in chains having a wee bit of a romp with her Sir Galahad, aka the King of Pain?
If my own experience is anything to go by, what these millions and millions of mostly married North American women may want is the opportunity to read, talk about, and experiment with the more than fifty shades to please your lover.
1Joe vs. José, Taylor vs. Tank, the feistiness and clutziness (but no cars are destroyed in the commission of this novel), the many cars in the condo garage (visions of Rangeman enterprises), all that body wash talk--Ranger uses Bulgari
2All the talk of alabaster skin, the references to blood e.g. singing in the veins, the deep dark secret, the hero’s father’s name: Carrick vs. Carlyle. The fact that one of his parents is a doctor.
3That email really boosts the page count, doesn’t it?
Want more Bev? Watch this interview about her book, The Meaning of Children, now also available as an e-book on Amazon.com: