So I have finally joined the ranks of millions, and finished reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Those of you who know me well will probably be wondering why I bothered to read it. Well, mainly because we were watching the trailer for the upcoming film at work, and someone suggested a group office outing to watch it. Unfortunately for me, I am such a die-hard book fan that whenever I want to see a film of a book, I feel the need to read it first. That, and I have read several hilarious reviews of Fifty Shades and, although I don’t expect this to match them, I thought I’d add my own to the list.
So how was it for me?
You know when you’re reading a book, and when you come out of reading it- particularly if you are interrupted suddenly- you feel almost as if you’re waking up, and you take a few seconds to remember where you are as you travel back from Germany in the 1930s, or Mordor, or Kvothe’s Waystone Inn. You feel momentarily displaced, and part of your head stays in that other world until you finish the book, and then you mourn the fact you cannot go back in the same way again.
Well, Fifty Shades is nothing like that. Coming out of reading it is like getting a breath of fresh air, and you are drowsy because your brain feels like it’s been coated in a fine film of shit. You will already have been interrupted either by parts that are so badly written they make you laugh, or bits that are so desperately fucking irritating you are seized by the urge to drop kick your kindle/book out of the nearest window. When you finish it, the only sensation is of blessed release and joy that you don’t have to read any more of this crap.
I already knew from numerous reviews and the general consensus that the writing was appalling, but it didn’t even try to meet my already extremely low expectations. It is, to borrow the words of Humphrey Lyttleton on an episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, ‘buttock-clenchingly piss poor.’ The repetition of various phrases and descriptions are so awful, you do have to wonder if anybody bothered reading it through, or whether they thought it was just so saucy you wouldn’t mind having the same phrases repeated over and over. You’re told about dear Christian’s grey eyes at least every few pages, going with his grey suit, grey ties and general greyness. Sounds desperately dull. Get some colour, you tedious man.
I’m sure you’ve already heard how remarkably stupid and one-dimensional Anastasia Steele is, but she really is one of the worst characters I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure if E. L. James gave her the brain and thought processes of a potato because she isn’t skilled enough to make her interesting, or because it makes her quaking every time Christian blinks more believable. I’ll get onto this in more detail later on.
So, we all know the gist: girl meets handsome boy. Handsome boy turns out to be into some casual whipping, girl is shocked but gives it a whirl. Sounds like a laugh all round. But for some reason, E. L. James decided to make the book weird, creepy and more than slightly disturbing. Christian is a grade A stalker, who tracks down where Ana works, where she lives, and a bar where she’s gone out one evening. Apparently this is all fine with her, because she is the most naïve, stupid and innocent 21-year-old ever to have walked the earth. Not only is she still a virgin, but she has apparently never even wanted to kiss anybody or touched herself. She has also never been drunk before her ill-fated trip to the bar when Christian comes to find her, even though throughout the rest of the book she seems to drink often and not just a teacup of watered-down wine, either. Put the two together and you’ve got the recipe for a relationship with ‘Hell Fucking No’ written all over it. Christian isn’t just sexy and dominating, he’s downright frightening. You don’t track a girl over hundreds of miles, send her post without asking for her address, find her in a bar without her telling you where she is, and then carry her away from her friends when she’s unconscious and put her in your hotel room. You don’t get so angry she’s scared of you if she dares speak to another man, or follow her away when she wants to take a break from you and make her feel guilty for drinking cocktails with her bloody mother. And somehow this is all supposed to be romantic? It’s just very dangerous and giving entirely the wrong impression of what a relationship should be.
Although E. L. James talks a fair bit about how Christian has ended up fucked in the head (which he is, completely aside from his kinky sexual preferences- to be honest, they’re a sideline for me, but I’ll get on to them later) at no point does she address why Ana is the way she is. Apparently we should swallow the fact that she is so innocent and unsure around men because her mother has had several husbands, and she’s into her nineteenth-century English classics and looks up to characters such as Jane Eyre and Tess. I’m afraid this really doesn’t wash. If you’re going to make your character so completely outside the normal boundaries of experience and interests, you need to give the reader some proper reasons.
So, Ana’s weirdly one-dimensional character. The only way the author seems to be able to show her as a person with diverse thoughts and emotions is by bringing in two extra inner Anas, the fabled ‘inner goddess’ and her ‘subconscious.’ Inner goddess. Inner fucking goddess. ARGH. One of the most profoundly annoying parts of the book, not just because she gets mentioned every four to five pages, always in the same way, but because all that is meant by her ‘inner goddess’ is her entirely normal sex drive. Holy hell! She’s a woman and she enjoys having sex! How do I fit this into her character? Can she just say, “Wow, sex is awesome, I want to do this more”? No, better not, seems a bit straightforward. I know! I’ll have some strange inner being that does a funny dance whenever she gets hot under the collar. AND even though it’s as plain as a pikestaff what it’s about, I’ll make some reference to her inner goddess only being interested in sex. Just to drive the point home. Er, yes, thank you, James- kindly give up this ‘literary device’ before I take her out back and strangle her.
On a similar irritation level is Ana’s ‘subconscious’, mainly because I think E. L. James got a bit confused about the meaning of the word subconscious. Basically this is only referred to in terms of her subconscious looking disapproving, or peering over half-moon spectacles when Ana wants to get down and dirty (it’s always half-moon spectacles. Think of another way of making her sound old, James). This is not a subconscious. I think conscience would almost be nearer the mark but really it’s just the part of her which has, for some reason, kept her from wanting to kiss anyone or drink more than one glass of wine before. The constant mentions of Ana’s ‘subconscious’ serve no purpose other than to piss the reader off, making it sound as though Ana has some 70-year-old from the 1850s watching Ana’s decisions and pursing her lips at the idea of sex before marriage, or sex without love, or, really, just sex. The two together, inner goddess and subconscious, add up to complete bullshit.
So: the sex. Considering how many copies have been sold and that none of those sales can be put down to the good writing, the sex must be white hot, yes? Well- not really, no. Again, the problem is the repetitive writing. There are only so many times you can hear the same descriptions of desire pooling, muscles clenching, everything building and rising until she ‘explodes around him’ every single bloody time before you become immune and start wondering what’s on the telly. Also, I swear on almost every occasion it’s Christian ordering her to come which ‘sends her over the edge’ which gets pretty dull. Come in your own good time, woman. Make the bastard wait. It would all be a lot more interesting if Ana didn’t start shaking like a leaf in the wind every time Christian looks up/looks down/runs his hand through his hair/looks at her/smiles/etc etc. Oh my. Nobody ever say ‘oh my’ again, please. It is dead. E. L. James killed it.
So no, the sex does not come close to making up for the dreadfulness of the rest of the book. I don’t really know anything about BDSM but the only thing about the book I found surprising/shocking was the contract Christian tries to get her to sign, which, until he spelled out the fact she could say no at any time and he wouldn’t then be able to touch her, sounded worryingly like it was putting down in writing that he could rape her whenever he liked and she couldn’t do a thing about it. There is lots of talk about her giving herself to him whenever he wanted, willingly and without hesitation. What if she’d just eaten and felt too full? Or his constantly changing, psychopathic moods left her spinning like a top and not really in the mood to be tied down and slapped with a riding crop? I was bloody glad when he made it clear she could tell him to sod off if she felt like it, what a relief. From a review I read on a kinkster’s website, this contract isn’t exactly normal in BDSM relationships and is just E. L. James trying to make the whole thing even more creepy than it is already, making Christian even more exploitative and screwed up, and Ana even more stupid. I wish she hadn’t bothered, it’s really boring to read especially when the whole contract gets duplicated two or three times- much of it is not that interesting. Otherwise, I’m not sure why people found the sex so scandalous.
Here are a few choice quotes that made me grimace, or laugh with a slightly desperate edge to the laughter because how in God’s name is this book so popular when it’s SO BAD?!!
‘My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle’ – Pretty obvious what she’s doing at this point. Use your imagination, but not too much. One of the many disturbing moments when it feels a bit like it’s being written by a pre-pubescent girl- see also the constant references to ‘down there’. I agree that many words for female genitalia are unappealing, but please, if you’re going to write a sex scene, pick one and run with it. Please do not refer to ‘down there’ in a hush hush, giggle giggle kind of way. Popsicle: *shudder.*
“Are you ready for some contraception?” – Haha this was funny. I read it in my head in the voice of that referee off Gladiators- “Blue team: ARE YOU READY?” “Red team: ARE YOU READY?” It’s contraception, mate- hardly a fucking rollercoaster.
‘Grey flannel trousers that hang from his hips’ – Ana goes into a dead faint over Christian’s trousers ‘hanging off his hips’ at least ten times. The worst of it was: I just don’t understand this description and what’s meant to be so erotic about it. Hanging off his hips? What? He sounds malnourished. Your trousers shouldn’t be able to hang off your hips, stuff should get in the way. Does the man have no arse? In fact I don’t remember her mentioning Christian’s arse at all, which is a gross oversight. Surely he should have an excellent, round, squeezable arse? Men with flat arses lose a lot of points in my book. Feed him some cakes, Ana love.
‘I bit my lip’ – The number of times Ana bites her lip, or Christian has to stop her from biting her lip because it makes him get all hot and bothered, the woman would have no lip left. She honestly must have bitten it about two hundred times. She would have chewed it away years ago, leaving her with a weird, bottom-lip-less mouth.
‘Looked up at him from beneath my lashes’ – This seems to be a staple in the erotic novel genre, because women’s long lashes are supposed to be sexy. But it’s a ridiculous description, and again, she does it every few pages. To prove how ridiculous it is, let’s all take a moment to see what she means. Everyone, look up from beneath your lashes. Very good. Now please look up from above your lashes, or from round the side. IT DOESN’T FUCKING WORK. YOU WILL ALWAYS BE LOOKING FROM BENEATH YOUR BLOODY LASHES. DON’T BE SO LAZY IN YOUR STUPID DESCRIPTIONS.
‘Who’s he kidding? He’s no gentleman. He has my panties.’ – Just plain hilarious
‘”You want it, you got it, baby,” he mutters, producing a foil packet from his pants pocket while he unzips his pants. Oh, Mr. Boy Scout’ – Presumably referring to the fact he is ‘always prepared’ and has condoms constantly about his person. Mr. Boy Scout! Love it.
‘Miss Steele’ – he calls her Miss Steele at various points all the way through. I suppose it’s supposed to be sexy, but I just found it unnerving. The only people who call me Miss Day are the cashiers in RBS. From a lover, it’s bizarre.
‘I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth.’ – Only, it absolutely wouldn’t be anything like having him in your mouth, because it is, in fact, a toothbrush. And also, the reason most of us don’t borrow a lover’s toothbrush is because it’s unhygienic and a touch weird, not because it’s so damn naughty we all keel over at the thought of it.
‘Holy crap/crapola’ – These are Ana’s swear words of choice. Again, being treated to the vocabulary of a 12-year-old (see ‘popsicle’).
‘His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… Or something.’ – One of the many moments when you feel like E. L. James forgot to go back and edit. I think we could do without a few of these adjectives- this is just subtle like a brick. And the ‘or something’- ? Why?
Well, I think that’s enough on this travesty of a book. I finish it no more enlightened as to why it has been so popular than I was before. The only explanation would be if it was the first erotic book ever to be published, but it most certainly isn’t. It seems to just be an erotic novel with particularly poorly drawn characters, repetitive and quickly tiresome sex scenes, and a frankly worrying and disturbing central relationship. Complete mystery.
The filmmakers, though, are on to a real winner. Because unless they actually bring in animated versions of Ana’s inner goddess and subconscious, and have them perched on her shoulders alternately doing the samba or peering over their glasses, everybody will be saying “Well- at least it was better than the book.”