College senior Anastasia Steele is simply doing her sick roommate a favor by going to interview successful entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine. She doesn’t expect to be drawn to him, and he to her. When Ana realizes that she wants the mysterious Christian, she’s at a loss, especially when he reveals that he has special tastes when it comes to women. Can she navigate Christian’s dark world? Does she even want to?
The fact is, this novel is incredibly problematic. Everything about this is a mess. The prose is painfully amateurish and clunky. The book’s characters are so unbelievably flat and lifeless that it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but little paper dolls. The lack of an actual plot means there’s no real conflict or tension. Of course, perhaps the most problematic element of the novel is James’s depiction of BDSM relationships, and the scary, damaging message she sends (unintentional though it might be) as a result.
Let us start with the novel’s prose. At best, James’s prose is competent, and at worse it’s completely distracting. For two characters who are supposed to be solidly American, they have an unfortunate tendency to speak with a plethora of British slang terms. It’s clear that no editing was done to alter this at all. It’s clear that James doesn’t believe her readers are capable of any sort of intelligent thought. There’s no nuance here, and there’s certainly no subtlety–details are repeated over and over, as if the reader forgets what they have read immediately after digesting it (one should be so lucky). The overuse of ellipses and italics also distract from the story and often cause confusion.
There’s also the problem of James’s tendency to use weird verbal tics that distract the reader. It gets to the point where Ana is saying “Oh my!” on nearly every page. She also has two inner voices (apparently the fact that the novel is written in first person from Ana’s point of view wasn’t enough): her inner goddess, which seems to be a euphemism for her vagina (a word that Ana never says, by the way), and her subconscious (no, seriously), who seems to chastise her. The fact that James probably means “conscience” when she says “subconscious” is never addressed. The fact that Ana couldn’t be aware of her “subconscious” because it is, indeed, something below the level of consciousness is never addressed. Nevermind the fact that both of these inner voices are totally cringe-worthy, annoying, and completely unnecessary–one of them isn’t even possible.
Then there’s the issue of the novel’s characters, who are also supposed to serve as the book’s plot. In her attempts to keep Ana completely innocent of the world around her, James makes it so that she has no access to a computer or to an email account–which, in 2011, is completely preposterous, especially for a college senior. In addition to these total stretches of credulity, James spends an awful lot of time telling the reader things about her characters–and then manages to show the complete opposite of what she’s just told her audience.
Ana is so completely bland and unremarkable that it is astounding anyone would be drawn to her (let alone every male in the book). She’s also completely stupid and seems incapable of inferring anything from any human interaction. It’s not her supposed innocence that’s the problem here: it’s the fact that we’re told over and over again that Ana is smart, when in fact she demonstrates the total opposite throughout the novel. Her only real defining qualities, besides stupidity, are her propensities for immature adolescent thought and shallow judgments about the people around her. She wants the fantasy–admits as much–and struggles with the fact that Christian has any sort of baggage.
Christian is another problem entirely. He’s an asshole of the finest order, only he’s supposed to be Ana’s protector and stalwart hero. He’s a total manipulator, a control freak, and completely abusive. When he has Ana sign a non-disclosure agreement before unveiling the fact that he lives a BDSM lifestyle, he is ensuring that Ana can’t discuss it with anyone but him–and she is a virgin who has no understanding of what is normal or healthy with regard to BDSM. If this isn’t abusive and a total disregard of kink ethics, I don’t know what is.
Ana views Christian’s propensity for dominant/submissive sex as a monstrous thing. There’s this underlying sense that if Ana teaches him how to really love, she can “cure” him of enjoying kinky sex. This is where this book’s fundamental problem lies: more than the bad writing or the lifeless characters, it is James’s untrue and damaging portrayal of BDSM that is the most worrying. By creating characters who view BDSM preferences as being the product of abuse as a child and as being “darkness” that must be cured, a message is sent that says that BDSM is something for people who are too damaged and screwed up to have a “real, normal” relationship. There’s also this strange dichotomy throughout the novel wherein James separates the concept of romantic love from BDSM, as if the two cannot coexist. What, exactly, is that about?
Of course, there’s also the fact that the kink factor in this book, while much talked about, is woefully tame. It allows the average reader to be mildly scandalized while also feeling fairly ensconced in safety. The whole reason a novel like this becomes popular is because it allows readers to have their moral high road while secretly getting off on the supposed “danger” of what is occurring on the page. All of this is easier to swallow, of course, because readers know that eventually Ana will “cure” Christian of his monsters.
TL;DR: No conflict, no character development, and no real chemistry makes this an overlong read with nothing to recommend it. Those looking for good erotica should go elsewhere. Hell, those looking for good Twilight fan fiction should go elsewhere–there’s nothing here worth delving into.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James. The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House: 2011. Borrowed copy.