EVERYONE ELSE: Mom, Dad, I told you to go read the kitten post.
EVERYONE ELSE FOR REAL: This review almost certainly isn’t safe for work. The novel might be. Ho hum...
Okay, so despite (or perhaps because of) the frenzy surrounding Twilight, I resisted picking it up and struggling through it until I was informed that it might help me better understand true love. Now, no one has tried to imply that I don't understand true kink (thank God), but since the newest suburban-mommy literary craze--alleged kinkfest Fifty Shades of Grey--is receiving those same kinds of accolades, I thought it might be time to update my education. And what better way to do that than with a book that is not just inspired by Twilight fanfiction but directly adapted from it in a search-and-replace kind of way? Fifty Shades of Grey, by British author E.L. James, started out as “Master of the Universe,” by fanfictioner Snowqueens Icedragon. Ctrl+F, and Bella Swan turns into innocent virgin Anastasia Steele; Ctrl+F, and Edward Cullen turns into powerful and enigmatic business magnate Christian Grey. The couple that taught me so much about love between a 107-year-old bloodsucker and the high-school student he stalks and longs to murder can now teach me the joys of a good spanking.
(I actually thought I knew the joys of a good spanking, but then, I thought I knew about true love, so maybe I've just been kidding myself all this time.)
For the record, I have no problem with fanfiction. (I mean, hi, y'all.) There are actually some fairly well-written ones out there. This is… not one of those. The prose is repetitive, florid, and boring. Removed from its source material, the novel is staffed with underdeveloped, one-note characters without history or motivation (not that the ciphers and caricatures of Twilight were that much better). The twentysomethings talk like teenagers. Christian talks like my grandfather. Hispanic Jacob-analog Jose talks like Dora the Explorer ("Dios mio!"). The exposition seems written for the sole purpose of reminding us that Christian is dark! and Ana is innocent! while shuttling us along to the next sexy part. It's a fic about Bella and Edward getting kinky, and so that's what the novel is about and the only thing the novel about. The story arc goes from "Hey, wanna let me whip you?" to “Okay.” to "No, too much whipping! (runs for the door)" over the course of 26 chapters.
And who struggled through it anyway, for you? Who’s sparing you the time and heartache? Who loves you? That’s right.
Twilite. The Twilight roots are strong with this one. Anastasia Steele is a perfect Bella Swan: unrealistically awkward and clumsy, inexplicably desirable to every man she comes in contact with, and utterly without personality. She blushes, she stumbles, she bites her lip. She drives an old and unreliable car and calls her dad by his first name. Her name is long and fancy, but everyone shortens it. Christian/Edward… Well, we'll get to him. But I'm wrong for you--I'm bad--Stay away from me--I can't stay away from you is the least of it.
Fifty Shades also adopts Twilight's best verbal tics; although James prefers to leave out dialogue tags altogether, she can't get enough of Stephenie Meyer's signature murmur. If, as threatened, this book is made into a movie, it'll have to be subtitled--I counted 82 murmurs in the first ten chapters before darkly muttering "Fuck this" and going on to more interesting pursuits.
Out the Ying-Yang. My feeling has always been that a man who can't bring himself to say the word "vagina" doesn't get to touch mine. I now add a corollary: The girl who can't bring herself to say the word "ass" doesn't get hers spanked. There are few things unsexier or more awkward-making than to hear Ana talk about the things Christian is doing to her "behind," much less the things he's doing to her "… down there." It's like she's trying to describe a BDSM scene while there's a four-year-old in the room. "I'm going to put it in your no-no hole," he says, pounding me ferociously in the hoo-ha.
(This is in addition to such passionate orgasmic exclamations as "Holy crap!" and "Aargh!")
Chekhov's Dildo. On our first visit to Christian's Red Room of Pain (I am absolutely serious), he introduces us to the tools of his trade: whips, canes, shackles, riding crops, a red leather bench. Don't become attached to these; we'll never see them again. Nor the dildos, nipple clamps, and butt plugs promised in the lengthy written contract he provides. By the end of the book, Ana has gotten a flogger, a belt, and a doggy-style pounding to the strains of a Thomas Tallis motet; Christian's St. Andrew's Cross remains unused, and Ana's "down there" "behind" remains unassailed. Now, I’m sure such activities are supremely kinky to anyone who’s never done the deed in the living room. There are also those in this world who proofread this review and said, “A flogger, a belt, and a riding crop? I got all of those in my first night.”
Contractual Obligations. As part of Ana's introduction, Christian provides her with the multi-page contract to be signed by him and his chosen sub. Appendices 2 and 3 outline the assorted sex acts that might take place, giving both parties a chance to set hard limits (never to be broken) and soft limits (which can be pushed a little). I've actually seen this kind of list before; it's not uncommon to review something like that beforehand to keep the scene from wandering into territory that either party won't enjoy. Generally, the lists are a bit kinkier than the purity tests we used to pass around in high school, but Christian's list probably would be very shocking to, say, a heroine in a Harlequin romance who's about to be ravished by the pirate onto whose ship she stowed away disguised as a cabin boy to escape her oppressive stepfather.
The thing is, Ana is a virgin. Completely. When Christian comes along and starts tickling her fancy, she hasn't so much as masturbated, much less acquainted herself with the works of Anais Nin. She's being asked to evaluate--and agree to--a list of purportedly deviant sexual acts for which she has no frame of reference. "Blow jobs?" "I don't know, maybe." "Dildos?" "Maybe?" "Butt plugs?" "What's a butt plug?" "Caning?" "Wouldn't that hurt?" "Suspension?" "Suspension from what?" "Axillism?" "I don't know what that is." "Dog in a bathtub?" "I don't know what that is." "Mississippi three-armed librarian?" "What is that?" "We'll put it down as a soft limit. Okay, sign here, here, and here, and initial here, saying you'll let me do all this stuff to you for a period of no less than three months."
Plus, we're talking about a man who lists breath play as a hard limit but leaves anal fisting on the table. Now, I won't squeeze on your neck a little, but if you want I'll stick my entire arm up… y'know, down there.
Edward Cullen, Now with Extra Bondage. This story isn't really BDSM, per se. Christian isn't a dom; he's just a dick. He’s the same domineering asshole that Edward was, only now his controlling assholery is attributed to his super-dark inner darkness (SPOILER ALERT: childhood trauma) rather than his deep and abiding love for Bella(’s circulatory system). Before he and Ana have entered into what they’re calling a BDSM relationship--before she even knows he’s kinky--he’s already growling at her about her eating habits, telling her who not to socialize with, making life decisions for her without her knowledge or permission, and pushing extravagant gifts on her that she doesn’t want. When she drunk-dials him from a bar one night, he runs a trace on her cell phone to track her down and make her behave. When he forbids her to talk about him to her friends, he makes her sign an NDA. His contract (all thirteen sections, 21 subsections, and appendices 1 and 4) dictates how she'll sleep, eat, dress, groom herself, and exercise--not just when they're playing, but all the time.
There’s a difference between simply being dominated and being a sub--the sub enjoys it. Anyone can be bossed around and smacked around; a sub is someone who gets on it as much as the boss-er and smack-er does. This is not something Christian cares about. The fact that Ana is a complete neophyte and has shown no prior interest in discomfort or submission makes no difference to him as long as he can convince her to let him boss her around. It’s not a balance of power, where the dom and sub each provides for the other’s needs; from the beginning, Christian has been the rich, powerful, worldly man, and Ana has been the young, shy, sheltered virgin. He doesn't care what she wants or likes--just what she'll let him do to her.
Christian has a long, murmured spiel about what he wants, all the things she’ll do to make him happy.
"You're a sadist?"
"I'm a Dominant." His eyes are a scorching gray, intense.
"What does that mean?" I whisper.
"It means I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things."
I frown at him as I try to assimilate this idea.
"Why would I do that?"
"To please me," he whispers as he cocks his head to one side, and I see a ghost of a smile.
"I have rules, and I want you to comply with them. They are for your benefit and for my pleasure. If you follow these rules to my satisfaction, I shall reward you. If you don't, I shall punish you, and you will learn," he whispers. I glance at the rack of canes as he says this.
"And where does all this fit in?" I wave my hand in the general direction of the room.
"It's all part of the incentive package. Both reward and punishment."
"So you'll get your kicks by asserting your will over me."
"It's about gaining your trust and your respect, so you'll let me exert my will over you. I will gain a great deal of pleasure, joy even, in your submission. The more you submit, the greater my joy--it's a very simple equation."
"Okay, and what do I get out of this?"
He shrugs and look almost apologetic.
"Me," he says simply.
My joy, my pleasure, your submission. Rules for her benefit and his pleasure. Reward and punishment to train her to follow his rules. Would it be too much to throw in, "Oh, and also, it'll be fun for you. You'd be surprised at how good a nice, hard flogging can feel. Big endorphin rush. And a lot of people actually feel a real sense of freedom at being dominated. You should google it." But no, he's the one who enjoys it. She gets--apologetic shrug--him.
I just can’t get over this romanticizing of the stalking, distrusting, controlling Edward/Christian. There’s a difference between a man who’s confident, self-assured, and powerful and one who’s domineering. If you want a guy to tie you down and beat you with a riding crop, go for it--but pick one who’s doing it because you both get off on it, and not one who does it because he’s emotionally broken and can’t feel like a man unless he’s demeaning someone else. Get a spanking, pull some hair, call somebody “sir,” put on some polyphonic 16th-century church music and get it on. Just don’t do it with a complete asshole like Edward Cullen.
That said: Unlike Twilight, I don't think Fifty Shades has nearly the same capacity to fuck up the malleable psyches of its readers (although I’m sure there are a good number of talented, unpublished writers who started drinking themselves to sleep at night after James’s seven-figure payout was announced). Twilight's main victims were impressionable teenagers who might actually seek out abusive relationships in the hopes of finding their very own Edward Cullen. Poorly written, boring, and disappointingly vanilla as it is, Fifty Shades of Grey is mostly just a bit of an escapist thrill, BDSM(ish) for women for whom Reverse Cowgirl is the ultimate naughtiness. It's something that a woman can pick up in the car line in front of the middle school and then put down again when the kids get out of class--nothing that's likely to torpedo any happy marriages. It might even spice a few up.