Review: 50 Shades of Grey (Paperback)

As it’s Valentine’s Day here and across the land, why not?

It’s hard to consider 50 Shades Of Grey without thinking back and making comparisons to Twilight, which I previously reviewed. 50 Shades of Grey started its life as Twilight fan-fiction, but in essence, it subverts a lot of the core message of Twilight.

There is, firstly, the similarities. 50 Shades of Grey follows a similar story structure – the naïve, young girl finds a man she is inexplicably attracted to. With 50 Shades of Grey, the story is by no means innovative or new; a naïve college girl has to interview an absurdly-wealthy, young, and (most importantly) “hot” business tycoon and the story develops into a series of extraordinary events that are so trite to be almost mundane. Yes, we accept that Anastasia is naïve and, at the drop of a hat, whisked away in a rich man’s helicopter because, apparently, this is every woman’s fantasy. The book plays out, largely, like a pretty naff romantic movie.

Anastasia and Christian are interesting characters, and not unlike Bella and Edward from Twilight. Anastasia is meek, self-deprecating and inexperienced, while Christian’s experience belies his youthful appearance. I did question the absolute level of Anastasia’s naivety; surely a 21-year old student in 2011 knew something? There’s some interesting moments of questionable logic – why does Anastasia, a literature student in Twenty-first Century America not even have a laptop? Or an email address? Her positioning as a technological and societal Luddite, considering her age, location and the material she purports to be a fan of, are headscratchers to say the least.

Christian is a more interesting character. There’s a slow unwrapping of his past throughout, and there is a definite sense that Anastasia is not just another notch on his bedpost, which does leave a small amount of hope. This character changes for meeting Anastasia, and Anastasia changes for meeting Christian, though it is debatable as to whether these changes are healthy and to be encouraged. I don’t like the way Christian behaves around Anastasia; he becomes very possessive and controlling. But in this book it’s almost portrayed as dedication. That a young 20-something should be swept off her feet by this man’s concerning behaviour – because he’s rich! I had the chance of reading a few pages of the “alternate view” book Grey and it confirms what is alluded to here – Christian’s primary interest in Anastasia, initially, is for sex; the character changes that follow as a result of their relationship are almost incidental, and I’m really not sure I’m happy about that sense of priority.

50 Shades of Grey does what Twilight does in that it bulldozes any potentially-interesting side characters in favour of the dominant main plot, which is a shame, as I feel in these sorts of stories the context of people close to the protagonists can potentially fill out the characters the book focuses on. Though with Kate, Anastasia’s roommate whose actions do trigger the whole story (while leaving Anastasia with the angst of ‘what if it had been her…’) does worry me somewhat – conveniently – she seems to find her parallel relationship with Christian’s brother, and, her slightly worrying discussion of Anastasia’s sexual activity in their communal hallway.

It’s hard to discuss 50 Shades of Grey without mentioning sex. There’s a lot of it, and the sex is why the plot motors along – to get to the next ‘set piece’. I found it boring to read after a few bouts; the shock wore off as to both the explicit nature (there’s nothing left to the imagination) and the descents into indulging Christian’s dominant personality. I can’t comment on these scenes as someone who has any interest either in sex or BDSM culture, but it was eye-opening at first… and then less shocking. Anastasia’s pretence of naivety certainly doesn’t last very long; but there is some evidence of character development with boundaries that both characters are willing to push, though ultimately one is too much for Anastasia near the climax of the book.

I didn’t find the idea of the BDSM sex off putting (to a degree; I certainly didn’t need a blow-by-blow account), rather, Christian’s nature outside of the bounds of the sex was more worrying. His dominance over Anastasia knew no bounds. Instances like Anastasia seeing her mother for a few days to “mull over” the “contract” with the aid of a bit of distance – a reasonable course of action, I would say, given the proposition – is ruined by Christian’s surprise appearance. It rightfully spooks Anastasia. I feel that the book is aware of Christian’s failings and tactics but does not really address them – he’s rich so can get away with it? Regardless, his behaviour and exploitation of Anastasia is worrying and it makes him as a character, despite his past, ultimately unlikeable.

However, these scenes are ultimately a means to an end. “Abstinence porn” is a label often attributed to Twilight; 50 Shades of Grey absolutely subverts that.

In terms of prose, 50 Shades of Grey was surprisingly readable, though that could also mean it is unchallenging. The narration through Anastasia’s point of view is a little immature and cliché-riddled, though that does, in some respects, reflect her own immaturity and inexperience; though considering Anastasia is a literature student…

The writing is in many ways quite modern – there’s email exchanges which allow the characters to communicate quite directly without the conventions of dialog interrupting. This is an interesting take on the epistolary method of storytelling (ie: through letters between characters); though as a technologist, the constant subject line changes are irksome. No Re:Re:Re:Re: Naughty Emails headers?! Though is this Anastasia’s journal, or a written version of? Why has she picked out all these emails?

Overall, despite that, 50 Shades of Grey was ultimately better than I was expecting. It’s been derided as “trash” and “mummy porn”, and it largely does maintain those labels. It’s a novel hung around sex and a culture I feel has significantly more nuance in the real world than is reflected here. The labels do stick, unfortunately; I won’t be rushing to read 50 Shades Darker but I was impressed by the presence of some character development.

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