I must have been living under a rock for the last six months, because I didn’t find out about E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey until a month ago. Unbeknownst to me, the novel detailing the torrid sexual relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey had evolved from a piece of Twilight fan fiction into a work with a notable cult following, tucked into the beach bags and backpacks of moms and teenage girls the world over.
After I learned about the book’s plot and characters, I saw no shades of grey in its formulaic narrative. The novel sounded like a run-of-the-mill bodice ripper with a predictable ending. The main characters and basic plot structure are as typical as they come. Grey, a cool and aloof billionaire with emotional issues, falls for a sheltered and bumbling young student, Steele, who would rather read 19th-century British novels than go out and party with her contemporaries. He pursues her; she reluctantly submits, and they embark on a series of wild sexual escapades.
What distinguishes this novel from others of its genre, though, are its explicit descriptions of the BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) relationship between Grey and Steele. It turns out Grey is one freaky dude with a strange penchant for whips and chains — yet he is a wounded, misunderstood freaky dude, which leads Steele to believe she can rid him of his attachment to his red-walled “playroom” (yes, he has a “playroom”) and embark on a more conventional relationship with him. But, of course, Grey is too attached to mouth-gagging and (literal) ass-whippings to relinquish his ways and (spoiler alert!) Steele eventually has to leave him.
Steele’s initial sexual submission is mildly unsettling (my first impulse upon encountering a bed with iron handcuffs would be to run, not stay and try it out), but the domination that dictates her emotional relationship with Grey is downright unnerving. He forbids her from looking him directly in the eyes, demands she call him “Sir,” and draws out a contract dictating her diet, beauty and exercise routine. Throughout, I found myself annoyed with Steele’s character. I wanted to shake her and implore her to grow a spinal cord. It wasn’t the bondage and domination that bothered me (whatever floats your boat) so much as Steele’s inability to pull herself together and act like an adult, instead of acting like a 5-year-old lost in an adult superstore.
Many have credited the e-reader for James’ success. The book was initially released as an online publication, which allowed bashful readers seeking erotic escapism to download and consume the book in public without suffering the knowing glances of checkout cashiers or the withering disapproval of elderly women on the subway next to them.
But ultimately James’ book is a success because she promises her readers an enthralling, sexy story — and she delivers. James’ writing skills may not put her next on the list for a Pulitzer and her plot may lack a sense of originality, but it is perfect for those seeking a capricious escape through a passionate story.
Coming across as something like Beauty and the Beast with a lot more leather and riding crops, Fifty Shades of Grey takes the age-old plot of the unlikely couple and refurbishes it into something that pushes boundaries, leaving its devotees captivated and reaching for the next installment in the series.