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.


Review: Twilight (Paperback)

Yes, I’ve read it…

Another set text from my creative writing and English literature course, Twilight was the one entry in my reading list I was truly dreading, but also looking forward to dissecting. I studied it as part of a strand on popular romance fiction, and will review it accordingly.

I managed to finish Twilight, though it was with some difficulty. I generally have little acclination towards romance as a genre; personal relationships between fiction characters being the sole motivator in a plot is not something that appeals to me. However, even from this standpoint, both the characterisation of the two main characters, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, in this book, coupled with the nature of their relationship if observed through non-tinted glasses, was troubling.

Bella’s characterisation was virtually non-existent. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old girl who conforms to the stereotype of “hating her life”, but what else is there to her? Bella’s personality is absolutely vacuous. Her sole motivation and reason to even exist is to fall uncontrollably in love with Edward. Bella takes an almost nihilist approach to her entire life; she doesn’t want to live in the dreary backwater of Forks particularly, yet chooses it over her mother’s new life with her stepfather. She doesn’t have a good relationship with Charlie, her father – there is little characterisation or progress on him besides his establishment as the town’s police chief. I get that the reason Bella is so vacuous is so that the reader can supplant their own self into her shoes and live the story through Bella, but it is very hamfisted and makes Bella a truly loathesome and boring protagonist. She’s unlikeable – the few friends she does miraculously make in the local school are treated contemptibly as nothing can seemingly come close to her infatuation, early on, with the “mysterious” and “perfect” Edward Cullen.

Edward Cullen’s behaviour quickly becomes irritating – he’s trying to avoid Bella because her “scent” is so good, he’s doing her a favour, she’s “better off avoiding him” – the usual tropes are invoked clumsily. There are a few hints at Edward’s mystique and Bella frequently identifies him as “perfect” and, more cringe-inducing, as an “Adonis”. Multiple times. Why is Edward these things? There’s no qualification of these terms; partly as the reader is meant to imagine why Edward is so wonderful, and partly I suspect because Stephenie Meyer simply had nothing better to say.

Edward indicates quickly a few superhuman traits that lead Bella’s inquisition. Her concerns are almost confirmed comically – Bella googles vampires, and, lo and behold, we discover Edward’s secret (though it takes a while for Bella to finally wrangle that out of Edward). Vampirism doesn’t explain or excuse Edward’s creepy and, frankly, deeply concerning behaviour. He watches Bella sleep. He follows her. He controls her behaviour. He even, near the end of the book, appears to engineer her sedation. None of this strikes me as healthy, or acceptable behaviour. So why is Edward lionised?

Vampirism seemed, to me, to be crutch for a story that outstayed its welcome about 66% of the way through. There are clumsy attempts to subvert classic vampire tropes; the only reason I find Edward scary is not through his vampirism (though he is part of a group of ‘good’ vampires who don’t hunt humans) but through his behaviour and actions. The ending of the book, where Bella is discovered by a vampire “tracker” and must be whisked away from Forks while the Cullens counter this “threat” is farcical almost to the point of melodrama. The pacing is all off; the book burns slowly until – boom – Bella is suddenly in some manufactured mortal danger. Meyer’s own additions to the vampire gamut don’t seem effective as part of a whole cohesive group of underground bloodsuckers.

To her credit, Stephenie Meyer does, in the book, identify a few salient points. Edward does question Bella’s almost manic resolve, at 17, to become a vampire, stating that she has a whole human life to lead. Bella has no answer to this beyond the quite pathetic “I love you, Edward!”, but I will credit the book for making this point clear. It alludes to the important message of not surrendering your entire existence for one person, and to enjoy life as whole. The classic romance trope of perusing sensual experience (read: sex) is subverted in Twilight as a quest for abstinence. Bella and Edward spend the whole book fighting urges – Bella her urges to seduce Edward and Edward to suppress his vampiric urge to kill Bella for her “exquisite” blood. Perhaps this pro-abstinence position is borne of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon upbringing; regardless, it’s done in a less-effective narrative style, and is drawn out artificially.

I feel Stephenie Meyer has not done her own story justice, ultimately. The prose is wooden and awkward, with phrases feeling like they’re first-draft material and it could do with a good copy-edit. I wish more of the ancillary characters were expanded – some of them seemed more interesting than the protagonists. I realise this is a book about the burgeoning romance between Bella and Edward but these characters – most of whom, especially the classmates, are treated appallingly by Bella – have potential stories of their own outside of the vampire narrative that could’ve been explored at the same time as the Bella and Edward thread.

Overall, though, I did it. Certainly it was an unchallenging read; Twilight is certainly not anything I would consider “literary”, however I feel that the writing and the characterisation left a metallic taste.

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