I must be almost the last person on the planet to read Fifty Shades of Grey. EL James has become the latest big-selling author to be maligned by readers and authors alike, as much for her writing style as for the content, so I thought I'd take a look. Well, okay, my wife got hold of a copy and I started to sneak off with it into dark corners. Here's what I found (warning - contains mild spoilers, double entendres and spanking of writers, readers and most everyone).
The most immediately noticeable thing about Fifty Shades is the first person, present tense narration. This was originally written as Twilight fan fiction, a series that uses the same intimate and claustrophobic narrative style. I'm no stranger to first person (my own first two indie novels use that style) and well aware of its limitations. A lot of readers immediately walk away from first person and those who don't like the style but persevere in hopes of BDSM mommy porn are already hard to please.
With first person narrative the reader is obliged to stay within the narrator's mind and only gets their take on things. Timelines tend to be linear, every day accounted for with a strong sense of chronology that risks becoming mundane. The first person narrator will observe, think and talk in a consistent style with a vocabulary that might feel repetitive to the reader. Think about it; we tend to use the same spoken words and thoughts on a day to day basis. Anastasia is a young thing, innocent, educated, intelligent, low in self-esteem but not isolated from the modern world. Her account of events is going to be from her perspective: naive, humorous, inquisitive, infatuated, insecure, unrequited, confused and, at times, clichéd. Despite her strong education and literary interests, she isn't going to have the life knowledge and hindsight that will enable her to eloquently describe her observations, experiences, physical feelings and emotions. Having accepted that, the FSOG story can be examined further.
The paperback copy that came into my hands was well-fingered. It had sweated in the hands of numerous ladies as they took lengthy baths to ensure a private reading away from interfering hubbies. When I had the chance to claim it for my own it was already past its prime, all floppy and wrinkled. The first few pages slipped from the spine onto the floor with a sigh. I held the remainder and tried to picture all those readers. Would the book be an anti-climax? Or had they all reached the self-gratification they had been searching for? (Compare the FSOG mommy porn content with my poor efforts and you'll see it ain't easy to avoid slipping into slapstick innuendo and double entendre!)
It was hard going. (Okay, I'll stop with that now.) The first fifty or so pages were all chick lit romance and I thought I'd made a mistake in trying FSOG. Then I remembered the first words from my wife as she had reached the first raunchy bits - "She has no gag reflex!" What could she possibly mean? I persevered. Things started to get weird. Non-disclosure agreements and contracts. Vanilla sex occurred, with a cherry on top. Things were looking bad for Anastasia in her innocence. I couldn't imagine all the previous readers of this copy (probably the entire female population of holy Catholic Ireland) had read a novel containing stuff normally only found in the red light district and live sex shows of Amsterdam.
Well, it didn't go there. It went somewhere else, far more disturbing.
Most of us are not natural leaders. We spend a lot of our work and personal lives looking for people to tell us what to do. In the majority, I think we're submissive by nature. The minority are dominant. When someone in authority directs us we, in the majority, tend to comply. That's how society works.
Take the concept into a personal relationship. If that dominant person is physically attractive, and there's an irresistible chemistry, it can lead to a relationship that appears unfair from the outside but satisfies the couple's private needs. That's what happens in FSOG. Anastasia is surprised by her own participation but justifies it with the rationale that she's really trying to convert Christian to normality. That's one hook to keep the reader going - the hope that Mr Gorgeous Perv will convert to a romantic. The other hook is a promise of hard core misbehaviour, as specified in the dreaded BDSM contract.
I did enjoy the touches of wry humour and the use of Anastasia's foxy inner goddess and insecure subconscious to explain her thought processes. Unrequited love and lust has always been a favourite topic for me. Anastasia wants Christian Control Freak to behave in a more predictable fashion and there's some irony in that. She's willing to endure physical and emotional debasement in an attempt to bring his behaviour and moods into a spectrum she can cope with. At the end of the day the subtle flaws in her character outweigh his overt perversity, as she is ultimately bent on relationship self-destruction and predictably sabotages the stairway to romance heaven every time it presents itself.
The ending leaves a void as Anastasia pricks her own balloon. Annoying, yes. A set up for the next book in the series, yes. EL James maintains the titillation and keeps her readers on the cusp of release. Yes.