Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Alas, I must confess. After months of university reading, I succumbed and bought this year’s bestsellers: The Hunger Games, A Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades of Grey. It goes without saying that, after seeing the army of erotic-readers on the beach, EL James’s novel had generated in me the highest expectations.

Before you think I’ve joined the ranks of the mainstream readers (note that I’m not known to succumb to the latest hype). Plus, I have to say in my defence that, as a journalism student who needs to be on top of society trends, I simply had to find out what the scandal was about myself.

But was the all the hype worth it? Well, all I say is: If scandal and intrigue are what you’re looking for in this book, then you’re very likely to be disappointed.

Meet Anastasia Steele, 21-year-old virgin who has never cared too much about men: she’s ridiculously clumsy, has a conception of herself that almost verges on self-loathing (“Am I worthy of this beautiful man?”) and, obviously, she is terribly beautiful.

Obviously though, just like in every novel of this kind, she doesn’t know yet. She then meets the mysterious billionaire Christian Grey who suddenly makes her feel like never before. However, just like every Twilight era male character, he first tries to distance himself from her with the “I’m too evil for you” excuse. Surprisingly, he doesn’t make it and the story starts properly with contents that are supposed to make it stand out of the publishing crowd.

Christian Grey carries a difficult past-baggage that got him into Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM): he presents Anastasia with a contract defining every detail of their “relationship”, in which he is supposed to be the Dominant and she the Submissive. This means Ana should accept all his orders (which include instructions on where to wax and what to eat) and not even look at him unless told to do so.

Anastasia, after seeing the contract and Christian’s playroom (full of whips, toys and the like) doesn’t run away: she accepts, and so the game starts. In a quite silly I-am-mad-at-you-because-you-talk-to-other-guys crescendo, the supposedly sexy punishments go on and on with Christian and Ana arguing like teenagers.

Now, despite how alluring all this might sound, it looks like the book was written in such a haste to get the story done that the characters end up being too ridiculous to be true, starting with Miss Steele. Her self-destructiveness is silly, especially after how much Christian shows her he likes her. Her acceptance of all his orders is not likely to happen with most women. What’s more, it’s quite unlikely for a virgin to pass from no sex at all to BDSM practices. It takes ages to gain confidence with sex, I imagine that getting into floggers and actually liking them might take even more. Oh, and by the way… Someone kill her inner goddess! It basically appears on every page and it’s neither interesting nor empowering: At best, it’s ridiculously funny.

Now, let’s talk about the “mercurial” Mr.Grey. At 27, he’s the billionaire CEO of a profitable company. His income, by the way, amounts to $100,000 per hour… Really? During the credit crunch? He buys Anastasia everything (e.g. a brand new Audi as a graduation gift) and his money knows no 2008 post-Lehman crisis. I consider this rather unrealistic. As a character, he is more interesting and better developed than Anastasia, but his switch from troubled guy who’s incapable to love to modern day Romeo looks a bit too quick.

Fifty Shades Of Grey’s language is quite interesting too. It switches from the supposedly harsh sex language (“I don’t make love, I fuck”) to sentences usually sounding more like 11-year-old romance. Take Ana’s “Christian Grey’s sweat; the notion does odd things to me.” Or her subconscious going: “I’m too excited to eat! Don’t you understand?” Christian’s sentences are quite over the top as well, what with “You.are.so.sweet”, “You.are.mine” (maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find the dots sexy) and, most of all, “I’d like to bite that lip” repeated all over again.

And now, the sex, for his is supposed to be the most scandalous and interesting part of the book. To be honest, it’s nothing of that sort. Of course, you wouldn’t read some extracts out loud to your parents. However, despite all the BDSM kinkiness, Fifty Shades’ only difference with most books is that its description of sex is very graphic. And repetitive, since the same sex described with the same sentences (e.g. I climax, I burst and so on) basically occupies two thirds of the book. Those who compared EL James’s sex scenes to De Sade’s were really wrong: nothing in here is really disturbing.

In fact, the sex is what makes the whole controversy pointless: at the end of the day, it’s not an erotic novel, but a weird love story that digs into the kinky sex details. This is proved by the fact that everything Anastasia does is for love, while Christian’s paranoid love for her turns this novel into a sexed up version of Twilight, of which Fifty Shades of Grey was a fan-fiction. In my eyes, what deprives Fifty Shades of Grey of the scandal everyone is talking about is its lack of a message.

It doesn’t plea for BDSM or kinky sex to be acceptable (Anastasia is always far too sceptical), nor does it show a particular growth in its characters. I didn’t even find it degrading for women to read: BDSM is presented as a consequence of Christian’s past. True, Anastasia’s dependence on Christian, her am-I worthy-of-him waffling is annoying and definitely not very empowering for her. But this doesn’t mean all women have to be like that: Anastasia is not presented as a role model and Fifty Shades of Grey is an innocuous story.

The attraction to dominant men such as Christian might be shared by most women, but it is up to a person’s strength to chose how much bossiness to accept. Now, I am not a hypocrite, so I will make things clear: there must be a reason if I have bought the whole Fifty Shades trilogy. The story, however repetitive and silly, is catchy. After the very annoying "in medias res" ending of the first book, I wanted to find out what was next.

What’s more, despite how annoyed I got at Anastasia, Christian manages to be intriguing. We should welcome both serious books and those stories that take your head off work for a while, and Fifty Shades of Grey does exactly that. It is a catchy light read, ideal for summer.

Still, it’s not the book of the century, not even of the year: It’s not a great story, it doesn’t have outstanding characters, it’s not super scandalous and, most of all, it’s not the greatest love story after Pride and Prejudice, as some said. It is now up to its future film directors to make Fifty Shades' cinematographic version as scandalous as possible. 

Pictures: Captain's Cynic, Page to Premiere