BOOK REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey

Yes, you read that title right... For the first ever Assorted Buffery book review, I'm about to assess the merits of the new fictional phenomenon currently gracing the bookshelves of most women and some men everywhere; the veritable pornocopia that is E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Badly written, badly executed and quite unintentionally hysterical, I can safely say that it's one of the most entertaining books I've read in a while. 

In a short space of time, Fifty Shades has become one of the most talked about books of recent times, influencing everything from failing marriages to what classical music people want to listen to (reports are indicating that sales of pieces mentioned have shot up). Women want to find their own Christian Grey and from what I've read, most men either want to thank him or punch him in the face. So what is all the fuss about? It was originally created as Twilight fan fiction, something that is immediately horrifying, and all the hallmarks are still there; controlling, "mercurial" hero who has a dark secret and a heroine who has no discernible personality traits and bites her lip so often that I'm honestly surprised it didn't fall off. Anastasia Steele, or Ana as she prefers, is an English Literature student about to graduate when she meets the enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey (Steele/Grey - get it? They're like totally meant to be together). Less of a plot and more of an excuse for an increasing amount of sex scenes in random locations, Ana finds herself pulled into the mysterious and controlling world of Grey as she finds herself questioning what exactly does she want from a relationship where she regularly finds herself tied to things. 

So just who are Ana and Christian? Well aside from being as multi-dimensional as your standard piece of cardboard, they're actually pretty annoying. Ana, for example, clearly does not belong to the 21st century, acting like a throwback to a time when women were demure and had no worldly knowledge whatsoever. I've no problem with her being a virgin because it allows her to approach Christian's tastes with a healthy dose of WTF but what university student doesn't have a laptop in 2011? Or a mobile phone? Or an EMAIL ADDRESS? My friend's dog has an email address for crying out loud. Her inability to deal with the outside world, despite being of one of the most computer-literate generations there has ever been, makes her seem like an idiot. Meant to be an intelligent, free-thinking woman, Ana has the capacity to be a decent heroine but one glance at Mr Grey and his piercing gaze, all principles fly out of the window and she ceases to have any redeeming features. The most annoying Ana-aspect though is that she's followed at all times by her angelic, judgemental subconscious and her permanently peppy and devilish inner-goddess. Throwing in a bit of Freud 101 despite having clearly never read any psychoanalysis, James sees the subconscious and inner goddess (bleurgh) as voices of reason or passion but instead, the italicized pair unintentionally form one of the best fictional comic double-acts since Fred and George Weasley. 

Then, of course, there's Christian Grey, dancer, pilot, piano player and all-round douchebag. How anyone can be this perfect is beyond me and that doesn't add to his allure, it just makes him seem all the less realistic, an untouchable set of abs in some well-fitting sweatpants. The only time his character actually appealed to me was in the various flirty emails that were sent between the pair. When he wasn't being ridiculously controlling and paternal (a scary trait in its own right), he was actually quite charming, displaying a sense of humour that's much more attractive than his conveniently messy hair. But every dark, brooding hero has to have his dark secret and it's not how he manages to say everything either "darkly" or "dryly". No, his little obsession is with BDSM. Maybe it's a personal taste thing, but I just don't understand why this man is sending thousands of women into a frenzy, wishing for their own version. I have no issue with the BDSM aspect (people can do whatever they like as long as its consensual and above board) but his Red Room of Pain sounds more like the Brown Room of Really Boring Furniture, making it about as erotic as the Antiques Roadshow. And if anyone ever spoke to me the way he speaks to Ana, all they'd see next would be the door swinging shut. But, he's like, so hot. So I guess that makes it ok.

But I'm not really that naive, I know people aren't reading this because of the characters, or the plot, or even the frankly god-awful prose; they're reading it for the sex scenes. Ranging from your standard "vanilla sex" (her words, not mine) to riding crops and insertable silver balls, we get sex in a boat house, in the shower, on the desk but not, as Ana mournfully observes, on the piano. Because attempting to play Für Elise with your arse must be, like, the sexiest thing ever. Despite the author's best efforts and the considerable stamina of her characters, none of this was particularly erotic, mainly due to the way in which James describes everything. I find it difficult to take anything like this seriously when the narrator consistently refers to her genitals as "down there" or "my sex" because you would think thesaurus.com offers a little more. Also, how many times can a person "shatter into tiny pieces" every orgasm before their molecular structure starts to have issues? Women are not made of china, thank you very much. Then there's Christian's sex talk which is consistently hilarious. Take for example, this little beauty: "I don't make love. I like to fuck... hard". At this point, I was laughing so hard, I had to walk away from the book for five minutes just to recover and Ana's exclamation of "Orgasm! Another one!" brought tears to my eyes.

The book isn't all sex and inadvertent hilarity though and, if you think about it, it is actually quite disturbing. That people think that this relationship is romantic, one that is based on the woman being entirely submissive, not only sexually, but socially, is very worrying. James gives us the entire contract that is held between the two of them and details the conditions set by Christian which include dictating how much Ana eats and how she dresses. I'm determined to not get involved in the debate around the sexual politics of this novel because they are so horrendously awful, it'll just result in my typing angry capitals of RAGE across the screen. But, to put it briefly, the relationship between the two of them is not good; he's controlling, manipulative and scarily aware of her monthly bodily functions. He infantilises her throughout the book, "admonishing" her about everything from not eating to drinking too much, forces her to drive a different car and what contraception to use. Granted, she gets points for not giving into him easily on everything, but she's not about to win any awards for Best New Feminist Icon.

With Fifty Shades of Grey, I know it's supposed to be entertainment and it definitely can't be taken seriously, but it won't stop me being a little angry at the portrayal of Christian and Ana yet despite the terrible prose, dubious sexual politics and woeful characterisation, I was completely hooked. I read the entire book in one sitting and will shortly be obtaining the next two in the trilogy, a fact of which I am a little ashamed. I don't care about the characters, I find the entire thing about as erotic as stamp-collecting and it is so badly written, I spend half the time laughing at it. Nevertheless, I want to read on, I want to know what happens. At one point, Ana thinks that "perhaps in the morning, this might not read like a bad joke" and I thought the exact same thing about this book, but it still does, it's still awful. All that being said, I can't deny I enjoyed it. It's bloody hilarious and all credit to E.L. James because she actually got people to buy this crap by the bulkload. And I can't argue with that.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to stop my inner goddess from tango-ing out the window.

- Becky

You can find more ramblings from Becky here http://beckygracelea.blogspot.com
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