The following review of Fifty Shades of Grey **contains graphic language and descriptions of sex.** It is a review of an erotic novel, after all. **Do not read this if you will be offended.**
Additionally, this review is only meant for those who may be under the misapprehension that there is any literary merit to this book. If you understand and enjoy that it is pornography, and therefore not worth critiquing, then you need read no further. We already agree.
However, if you have been told it is actually a “good book” or is interesting in any way, let this serve as a warning.
This review contains many spoilers.
It seems appropriate to start with what we feel is the worst aspect of the book: the people. Since the reader must spend more than 300 pages with them, reading as they talk, have sex, and most of all think, digging into exactly how poorly the characters are handled is important.
Anastasia Steele (oh god, the names) is our main character. We follow her thoughts throughout the book, which is written, we must mention, in the insufferable “present historical” style. Anastasia does not tell us what she thought at the time, but what she is thinking currently. The book reads like the notes in a film script or play, describing what the characters are doing at the time. This is annoying from the first page.
“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair–it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”
Imagine how painful that style would be to read for hours and hours. That passage, we must note, happens to be the first few lines of the novel. It does not improve from there.
Ana’s main characteristics at the beginning of the story are the following:
- she is twenty-one
- she is finishing college
- she does not own a computer
- she is attractive, but insecure
- she is a virgin
- she has kissed before, but did not particularly enjoy it
- she has never been drunk
- she does not enjoy exercise and does not do it often
We are given, as far as we could determine, no reason why Ana has led such a sheltered life. Merely that she hasn’t been interested in anything sexual or alcohol-related. No background, no insight. Nothing that might make us sympathetic or intrigued.
By the end of the novel, which, it must be noted, spans only a few weeks she:
- has graduated college
- gets drunk and drinks wine daily
- regularly has wild sex with a man she only recently met, who is twenty-seven, including: sex while on her period, sex after dinner in the boathouse at his parents’ house (while his family is in the main house), sex with toys and bindings, sex involving pain and submission, sex wherein she learns she can touch her toes without ever having tried before
Again, this book takes place over only a few short weeks, as far as we could tell. And almost all of the story is a series of her own imaginings, conversations/hallucinations with both her subconscious and her “inner goddess”, and incredibly banal conversations with the other characters.
The most prominent aspects of Ana’s personality, then, appear to be her willingness to do whatever she is asked, even as she claims constantly that she is hesitant, and her ability to do things she’s never tried before with deftness and pleasure. This is coupled with her constant “reveries” in which she imagines all the things a sane person would simply say out loud, leaving the reader to plead with her to just open her mouth and make the story actually happen instead of having it all play out in the mind of a simpleton.
Christian Grey, the other main character, is equally frustrating. First, he is an impossibly attractive twenty-seven-year-old millionaire, entrepreneur, charmer, and polymath.
Sexually, he is both skilled (even if his tastes are less than conventional) and very well-endowed (as we are told many, many times). He is also an excellent dresser, and his pants “hang off his hips, in that way” (we are never told precisely which way that is, however).
Christian Grey speaks like a nostalgic retiree, constantly yearning for a youth he’s never had and a past that never happened. For instance, he actually uses the phrase, “making the beast with two backs.” Now, do you know anyone under forty who has ever said that unironically?
We are told his unusual proclivities have been brought on by his experience with an older woman when he was a teenager. She used him sexually, and he has developed certain needs and desires as a result. He is, as he says, “fifty shades of fucked up.” He staunchly refuses to explain his history to Ana, because, well, it’s none of her business and they just met. But, in a further effort to frustrate the reader beyond the point of sympathy, Ana asks him over and over and over again about this, and then dares to express shock and hurt when he becomes angry at her constant questions.
These are the most boring and cliched archetypes you can have for characters: A mysterious, dangerous, sexually-experienced, and somewhat violent man, and a needy, nagging, virginal, and insecure woman. It’s insulting to everyone.
E. L. James wrote this story originally as Twilight fan-fiction (seriously). So, this is essentially the story: Ana is a repressed girl with no experience with anything interesting. Christian is a very old man in a young man’s body, who long ago was turned into something mysterious and dangerous by an older woman (who is still in his life). He then attempts to turn Ana into someone like him, asking her to sign a contract which would make this transformation essentially irrevocable. Are you getting this? She has removed the vampirism from a vampire story, leaving everything else intact.
The only time these characters seem like real, actual people are during their endless email conversations. We’re not sure why. Is it the change in perspective, or is it because in an email exchange you actually need to exchange information and thoughts? Sometimes their emails actually manage to be mildly funny. But while these are a much-appreciated break from the rest of the story, they do little to make the book worth reading overall.
It’s not worth talking about any of the other characters. They are all just placeholders, dummies through which Ana can express her thoughts and desires, without ever saying anything meaningful.
Yes, repetition gets its own section. It is the book’s constant reminder that it was written by someone with an, at best, fundamental grasp of creative writing, and edited by someone either incredibly lazy or possibly deceased.
Let me briefly excerpt from a previous post on this book:
In a normal story, the word “impassive”, to describe someone’s body language or statements, would be used sparingly. In this book, it is used 28 times. Every 13 pages or so. That’s common enough to unsettle the stomach.
But that is not even the worst offender. No, it would seem that “flush” wins the prize. Any time the main character experiences the slightest surprise (and she is surprised by everything that happens in her world), she “flushes” and her breath usually “hitches”. “Flush” or “flushes” appears a staggering 113 times. That’s, get this, every 3.3 pages.
The word has lost all meaning. It’s like the author has a tick. It just appears, “unbidden” (as she would say, 11 times in the story), and unwelcome.
She also says that someone’s mouth presses “into a hard line” 14 times. That may not seem like a lot, but think about how specific a phrase that is. Have you ever heard someone use it before? Have it repeated 14 times over the course of a story that contains almost no exposition and less action, and you can get a picture of how grating it becomes.
Likewise, she refers to her “inner goddess” 58 times throughout the story. Do you know what that is? We are never told. But her subconscious, usually referred to in the same sentence, appears to be the angel on her shoulder warning her of danger, and her inner goddess is the devil on her other shoulder. We guess. In any case, it’s incredibly distracting. One is left to wonder about these constant internal conversations, and the way she personifies parts of her personality. She seems like someone quite mentally unwell.
This book leaves absolutely nothing for the reader to imagine or learn on his or her own. Instead, everything is brutally and thoroughly hammered into the reader’s mind.
These sentences, we are not kidding, actually appear in the novel:
“He shrugs noncommittally.”
“‘Hmm,’ he replies noncommittally.”
Someone actually shrugs without commitment. Can you even believe it?
Here is another sentence you would never imagine reading in a real book published in the real world:
“‘What is it?’ she says inquisitively.”
Someone asks a question, inquisitively. It’s almost as if they were inquiring about something through the use of a question. Who would ever think?
Metaphors are not the author’s strong point, either. That is, she can’t let them simply be metaphors. She has to explain them to the reader.
“Honestly, his surname should be Cryptic, not Grey.”
Was that not the entire point of naming the book Fifty Shades of Grey? His name is Grey, and he’s mysterious. There is your title, there is your pun. But no, it is as if either the author does not understand the meaning of her own title, or worries the reader does not, and so she breaks it by spelling it out.
Here is another one:
“His look is so intense, half in shadow and half in the bright white light from the landing lights. Dark knight and white knight, it’s a fitting metaphor for Christian.”
Again, we are given a metaphor, and then it is explained to us, even stating that it is, in fact, a metaphor. The great thing about metaphors is that you don’t have to explain them. Because when you do, their power is removed, and they take more away than they give.
In a book full of bad sentences, it’s hard to pick the worst, but these certainly rank highly: “He presses a button and the Kings of Leon start singing. Hmmm … this I know. ‘Sex on Fire.’ How appropriate.”
Great, thanks Ana. We get it.
The Ick Factor
Most of the conversations about this book focus on the sex. And for good reason, it is really the only thing that approaches being interesting in the story. But the “ick factor” is hard to overcome.
You may have heard that the book is full of bondage and other intense behaviour. That’s sort of true. But, honestly, the only thing that really borders on unusual is the aggressive nature of it. Ana is spanked, whipped, and otherwise handled forcefully in their sex scenes. But beyond that, it’s all pretty standard. Except for the following:
When Ana is on her period, we are told: Christian “pulls on the blue string–what?!–and gently takes my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet.”
This book does not do detail, normally. We are given almost no important information about the characters’ actions or motivations. But when they have sex, the details gets so… granular, it’s both shocking and, yet again, distracting. Also there is a point in which Christian takes his used condom and puts it in his pocket. For no reason other than to dispose of it. It’s an incredibly strange moment.
We are young, open-minded people. The sex is not the weird thing to us. It’s the way it’s described. It’s so over-the-top and detailed, about the oddest things, that it becomes a parody of sex scene, and not an exercise in eroticism.
I’ve quoted Jane Espenson before about over-describing things:
Remember Spinal Tap? Remember what “St. Hubbins” was the patron saint of? “Quality footwear,” that’s right. Not shoes. Superordinate. And, at the other end of the very same spectrum, remember this Buffy line? “I’m not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots”? Subordinate. The too-general is funny. The too-specific is funny. But, sorry, Goldilocks, just right is not funny.
What could have been
Here’s an outline for a novel:
A physically and sexually abused teenager grows up to become a wealthy, successful young man. Riddled with painful memories and robbed of his childhood, he begins to explore his own sexuality and desires in extreme and dangerous ways. On a path toward complete self-destruction, he meets a girl.
This girl comes from a deeply puritan background. Her parents, devout Christians in an extremist sect, have kept her completely isolated from the world outside her family and church. Everything outside this life is considered evil, and she pictures the world around her to be very dangerous and always frightening. She eventually ends up going to a Christian college in the deep south, and along the way meets this man. Her lack of experience, and her fear of anything that might challenge her faith or anger her parents, keeps her from engaging physically or emotionally with him, at first.
Overtime, however, they become better and better friends, realizing that they have both missed out on their youth, and have both missed out on the opportunity for a healthy sexual relationship, and the understanding of what it means to be emotionally intimate.
Their sexual relationship is painful, for both of them, both physically and emotionally, and soon it is over. But as they go their separate ways, they realize that, at least for a moment, they knew what it was like to experience innocence.
Would you read that book? I’d read that book.
That’s what Fifty Shades of Grey could have been, but wasn’t.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a bad book. A very, very bad book. We understand that this is exactly like saying that the latest pornography film is a bad movie. Of course it is, and no one should be surprised.
But this book has become something of a phenomenon. It is talked about in newspapers, on TV, and around the water cooler, so to speak. We had heard about it constantly, and so we finally had to find out what it was really about.
Because we were told, like many of you perhaps, that while it is a graphically sexual book, it contains an interesting story, and it is worth reading for that reason alone. It is our hope that we have shown you that this is not the case.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a pornography book, and that’s great. We see nothing wrong with people thinking and talking about sexuality and things outside of their comfort zone.
But this book is no more art, and no more interesting, than something you find in a teenager’s web browser history.
Originally posted on Start As Close to the End As Possible.