Hard Limits; or, a rather ranty review of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E. L. James (NSFW)

Recently, people absolutely lost their junk over this book. And, being a bookseller and a person who is generally interested in books, writing, and the book industry, I figured I might read it.

Let me say a few things before we get into the meat of this thing:
1.) This is erotica.
2.) This is BDSM erotica.
3.) This started life as TWILIGHT fanfic. I shit you not.

What follows will be a frank and honest discussion of sex, alternative sexual lifestyles, and TWILIGHT fanfic. If any of these things offend you, please move along. (If it’s the TWILIGHT part, check this website, as it is amazing: Reasoning with Vampires.)

Disclaimer: I will try to explain what I understand about the lifestyle/proclivities, but I am under no illusion that I understand everything about everyone ever. If I had to get into the individual psychology of every member of the community, we’d be here all day and we’d still not have found anything. So I’m making blanket statements, with no intention of insulting or pigeonholing anyone. It is my personal opinion that as long as everyone is a consenting adult, the number of fucks I give about what you do behind closed doors is zero.

And before you get on your high horse about the weirdness of people beating each other in leather-walled dungeons, let me share with you a little phenomenon known as BDSM Lite. If you’ve ever scratched a back, pulled hair, withheld an orgasm, or tied your partner to a bedframe with a necktie, you have technically participated in BDSM practices. Deal with it.

BDSM: Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, Sadism/Masochism.

So let’s address some things. Abuse is abuse: mental, emotional, physical. Abuse is abuse. Even if you are in a relationship, if you are experiencing something that you don’t like, that makes you uncomfortable, or that hurts you, and you haven’t agreed to it, it’s abuse. End of story.

If, however, you are in a relationship where certain behaviors have been defined, certain limits have been drawn, and certain practices have been allowed, you have agreed to said certain things. Even if they hurt. If, within this relationship, you are experiencing things that you haven’t agreed to, and you don’t like them, they make you uncomfortable, or they hurt you, that is abuse. End of story.

Meet Anastasia Steele, a frankly unbelievably sheltered protagonist, a college graduate of modern day who does not own a computer nor seems to have read anything besides TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES. Through a crazy random happenstance, she meets Christian Grey, CEO & President of Everything, Ever. He is totes sexy, and totes dark and tortured. Very Victorian gothic romance hero.

Then, surprise! He’s a Dominant. Not just dominant, adjective, but A Dominant, noun. A lifestyler. Ana freaks out. But then doesn’t. Then does. Then doesn’t. Then…

Hamlet, we get it.

He wants her to be his submissive. She says yes, then says no, then says… well, you get the idea.

Time-out for some D/s psychology: The Dominant is interested in taking care of the submissive. That’s sort of what it boils down to, from what I understand. Sometimes the submissive misbehaves and is corrected within agreed-upon limits. (Ana says canes are a hard/non-negotiable limit; I can’t say I disagree with that choice.) Some people like to be restrained, tied up, whatever. Some people are into pain (giving and receiving, to varying degrees). Some people want to be verbally denigrated. Some people want to serve. Some want to be served. That’s fine.

It is never about fear. It is about trust. Christian says that at one point: you, as the submissive, have all the power. You have the power to decide what I can and cannot do to you.

So, Ana and Christian. He makes all the money, and he wants to take care of her. He buys her a car, flies her to dinner on his private helicopter, gives her a new wardrobe, etc., etc. One of the big internal conflicts of the book is Ana’s struggle with whether or not this makes her a prostitute. Money for sex, she reasons. And here we are back to the crux of the D/s relationship: he wants to take care of her. She needs new clothes, he gets them for her. She doesn’t eat well, he buys her dinner. She has a shitty car, he buys her a new one. He’s got the money, and he wants to, so why shouldn’t he? That is, after all, part of the enumerated contract he draws up for this relationship, that he gets to take care of her. It pleases him, he says, to look after her. She balks. A lot.

There’s a lot of waffling, a lot of compromise on both sides, a hint of Christian’s backstory being painful and tragic (and pretty easy to guess), and a pretty good cliffhanger for the next book.

So! Things I Liked:
First and foremost, I love that a BDSM erotica novel has gotten this insane level of national press. I love that the media is treating the subject like it’s – gasp – normal. Because it is. (See earlier notes on BDSM Lite.)
So, of course, the sex. It was, for the most part, hot with lots of T’s. A few of the scenes were mediocre and only one was super disappointing, but I spent a large chunk of the novel fanning myself and being embarrassed for reading this in public.
The scene where she reaches out to touch his chest and in a panicked whisper, he says, “Hard limits.” Something about that tiny little paragraph thrilled me; it wasn’t sexual, but maybe because it was the only believable admission of vulnerability Christian ever makes.
I liked the ending. If you know my taste in romance, you can guess why. (Mini-spoiler: I liked it for the same reason I liked the end of the STRANGE ANGELS series.)
I liked that this uninitiated girl doesn’t just crack and discover that omg she’s totes into whips and chains and had no idea!!1! Her reaction is reasonable. Logical. Expected. However…

Things I Didn’t Like:
Every character in the story who is into kink has some kind of major dysfunction. This, plus the inevitable vanillization of their relationship leads me to believe that this is not a pro-kink novel.
Who is this 22-year-old girl who’s alive in the 21st century in a first world country and lived in Las Vegas for a while and has access to the internet that has NEVER heard of someone getting their jollies from a little slap & tickle? I don’t buy it. Oh, and she’s a virgin. Duh.
Her bff Jose tries to get into her pants while she’s drunk and she’s just sort of fine with that? Like a week later, she decides she can’t be mad at him for long because he’s just so great?
Also, re: Jose, we don’t ever get any reason to be on his side. All we get is Ana’s vague discussion of his being awesome, and a scene where he sexually assaults her on a public sidewalk. I’m not really rooting for this guy.
The whole book could have used another editor. It’s not bad writing, but it isn’t particularly good: it’s amateurish, at best, and I think Ms. James has some real potential. If she wrote a few more books and worked with a developmental editor (professional or a friend who doesn’t mind being a sounding board), I think she’d have a real chance to run with the big dogs.

This started as TWILIGHT fanfic. And that’s not points against it necessarily, but it does color one’s opinion of the characters and subsequent characterization. It also colors one’s opinion of the author (sorry). I wish I hadn’t known this before I started reading, because then I wouldn’t have read it as Edward sulking a lot and Bella just being confused and indecisive. (I guess Jose was Jacob?)

But here’s where the whole thing gets weird for me: taken on its own, this story was fine, 3-3.5 stars. Totally acceptable. It had a better plot than most erotica – which, granted, is not the genre’s strong point – but there was a lot that just didn’t add up for me. But something, something, had me turning the pages. Maybe it was that I was borrowing an e-reader and had to give it back in a day. Maybe it was that I was hoping for more sex. I don’t know. What I do know is that if I hadn’t had to sleep and go to work, I’d’ve read this thing cover to cover in 6 hours. Why? What about the story made me keep wanting to read? The characters were unbelievable and their relationships bordering on irritating and the setting was a non-issue.

What the hell? Fortunately, the spell had broken between my finishing this one and starting the second one – perhaps because the first thirty pages of FIFTY SHADES DARKER is an angst-burger nom session that would make Joss Whedon blink – and have completely lost interest in the characters.

So, you know, I’ll just blame it on the sex. I’m totally fine with that.

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3 Responses to Hard Limits; or, a rather ranty review of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E. L. James (NSFW)

  1. Reading this review kind of makes me want to read this book again.

  2. bannatreasures says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said! Especially the part about him taking care of her and her problem with being a prostitute. I kind of found that annoying about her, I really wish she was just grateful, to me it seemed like a part of the relationship..

    I read it cover to cover too till I was done, not sure why either haha! Well I’ll give the book credit for that! I’m not gonna read the other two books though.

  3. Pingback: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY REVIEW « Black Hippie Chick's Take On Books & The World

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