A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It was ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ that got us all thinking in the den about erotic writing and inspired this week in which we’ve explored different shades (50?) of erotica. None of the Foxes has – er – actually read all of the first novel, let alone the whole trilogy, though. Problem: we write book reviews. But that would not necessarily be an obstacle to writing about the whole phenomenon, which has certainly turned the world of authorship, publishing and even reading upside down this year. However, its publication history, its record-breaking sales and its effect on current and future fiction lists – all this has already been picked over in minute detail elsewhere.
Beneath all the hype, the forests of trees cut down, the oceans of comment, rivers of snark and occasional published review, though, there lies buried a novel. Readers have arguably lost out to commentators in adding to the acres of print exhausted on the subject (it is a bit of a standing joke that the Guardian at one time was managing a ‘50 Shades’-themed feature at least one a day at the height of the storm, either in print or on its online ‘Comment Is Free’ site). A vast amount of the coverage has been on the nine days wonder of it, and not on the novel itself.
But Vulpes Libris is ever and always on the side of the Reader, so when guest blogger Aireen Osea offered us a piece on her reaction as a reader to the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy, we made her very welcome. ‘Fifty Shades’ has divided readers into opposing camps. Many have, let us say, tried it and not liked it (many others have not tried it because they don’t like it), but there is no denying that many more have found it liberating to take a plunge into erotic writing for the first time – heartened by seeing all those fellow commuters on the train flaunting that cover with that silver silk tie on it (forget the notion that this is writing made for the anonymous e-reader).
This piece, then, is written by someone who has read the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy, enjoyed it and found much to reflect on in its characters and their situation. Beware though – if you have been on a desert island for the past few months and have not stumbled across an account of the plot, you might find this review a little SPOILERIFIC.
Thank you, Aireen, for your overview of the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy – and welcome to all the commenters we shall no doubt attract.
The Fifty Shades Trilogy
“Ladies know what to guard against because they read novels that tell them of these tricks…” You might recognize this quote if you’ve read Tess of d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. For those who have read 50 Shades of Grey however, the central character, Christian Grey refers to this quote in an expensive gift that he gives to Anastasia (“Ana”) Steele, the heroine of the series. Readers should take the quote for whatever it’s worth as it alludes to so much in both books as well as the dominance of the 50 Shades trilogy at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. So what is the fascination with Christian Grey – a mere mythical creature of fantasy molded out of someone’s highly erotic imagination, and supposedly with a hotter body than Michelangelo’s David? And what buttons does Ana(stasia) the shy, slightly klutzy heroine push for readers?
Dominance, submissiveness, defiance, and control, are themes that are clearly defined at the beginning of 50 Shades of Grey (but slowly evolve throughout the trilogy). Ana, a shy and insecure college student is about to interview Christian Grey, extremely wealthy, young, and the successful CEO of his own company, for the school paper. Upon entering Christian’s office, Ana’s nerves get the best of her as she stumbles; immediately Christian is at Ana’s side helping her up. Embarrassed, Ana manages to get through the uncomfortable interview and assesses Christian to be arrogant, harsh, intimidating, but above all, impossibly gorgeous, charming, and very hot. Frightened by overwhelming desires that she’s never felt before, Ana makes a quick escape once the interview is over and immediately puts the entire mortifying experience behind her. Then out of the blue, Christian shows up where Ana works and leaves her with a strong, cryptic hint of his interest in her.
So the pursuit begins – Christian gets to know Ana and is beguiled by her intelligence, beauty, innocence and wit, and learns she has an affinity with British literature. One day, she receives a gift from Christian, the sort only someone as rich and powerful as he is could give her – first editions of Tess of d’Urbervilles with the cryptic quote (and subtle warning) attached. Irritated, Ana confronts Christian and he explains himself with an invitation to his apartment and his “playroom” where Ana discovers Christian’s affinity with the BDSM lifestyle; he wants her to be his next submissive and offers her a contract that defines his rules and expectations. Ana differs from his previous partners, resisting the notion of a contract and asking questions which Christian has never had to address; finally, with both Ana’s written and verbal consent, he becomes the first to steal her innocence and stake a claim to her body. From then he reveals an extreme possessiveness and severe controlling tendencies, with his repetitive reminders to Ana that she belongs to him. I can’t help ponder the similarities between Christian and Count Laszlo de Almasy from the English Patient. It almost becomes suffocating, but Ana is completely enthralled by Christian, while he never ceases to remind her how beautiful she is in many graphic ways.
A distinctive third character exists in this series, which is Ana’s” inner goddess,” or her subconscious – the inner voice behind Ana’s doubts, fears, and insecurities. It’s the voice that cheers her on and belittles her for her naive thoughts and actions. It makes her realize that she wants and needs “more.” The more time Ana spends with Christian while he waits for her to sign his contract (a clear example of her defiance), the more she realizes that it’s not enough to just be tied up, blindfolded and spanked, while Christian uses her as the music of Thomas Tallis plays in the background. The narrative leads us to believe Ana and Christian want more, yet both are unsure how to fulfill that given they are both new to this sort of desire for each other. In the short amount of time Ana has known Christian, she’s discovered a side to him that can be tender one moment and full of rage the next. Inside Christian exists fear, vulnerability, insecurity, and overall, a sad and tortured soul often manifested in the haunting piano pieces of Bach and Chopin which he plays after having his consensual way with Ana.
There are 50 Shades holding Ana back from obtaining the ideal relationship she’s dreamed of and read about in her favorite British novels. Ana wants intimacy, the ability to make love without being tied, and the ability to reciprocate her love to Christian through her touch, which Christian won’t allow. It becomes Ana’s mission in 50 Shades of Grey and throughout the series to find out why this is, despite obstacles in the way such as Christian’s issues stemming from his childhood, as well as Ana’s insecurities and doubts about herself and her ability to fulfill Christian’s BDSM needs. Her goal is to bring him out of his darkness.
E L James: The 50 Shades trilogy.
Fifty Shades of Grey. London: Arrow Books, 2012. 528pp
Fifty Shades Darker. London: Arrow Books, 2012. 384pp
Fifty Shades Freed. London: Arrow Books, 2012. 592pp