NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Natalie Thomas

GET UPDATES FROM Natalie Thomas
 

Fifty Shades of Frustration: My Grievances With E.L. James' Provocative New Novel

Posted: 05/30/2012 10:33 am

I'm a little late to the game. I was going to opt out altogether but at dinner with my friend the other night, I revealed that my husband was going on a weeklong business trip, which culminated with many of my friends also out of town and, as a result, all the free time I had. "I know what you should do," she said, "read Fifty Shades of Grey."

Intrigued by the hoopla and valuing her opinion, I took her up on her suggestion and borrowed her copy. Three days later, I finished the first tome and now understand the fascination. James' racy new novel pushes the proverbial envelope. Erotica is nothing new of course; it's just now more mainstream and acceptable than ever before. What was once taboo, is now being read openly on planes, trains and public beaches not to mention discussed at great length over lunch and in car pool lanes. What Sex and the City did for women's sexuality, Fifty Shades takes to another level. Christian Grey might even make Samantha Jones blush. And, if women are more active and adventurous with their mates, a little happier, freer and slightly less stressed these days due to Grey, I think that's great.

Does it mean I'm ready for an onslaught of BDSM-related books, television shows and movies à la the vampire saturation post Twilight series? No and I urge the decision-makers out there to find the next big thing instead of Fifty Shades 2.0.

But I don't think the S&M nature has as much to do with the book's popularity as the actual Christian Grey character does. Sure, all the media attention about the "scandalous" new read helped sales but, ultimately, it was women's word of mouth that kept those purchases going. Water cooler talk was less about the shock value and the toys and more about Christian himself. Women across America were escaping with the book, getting carried away and wishing their man was a little more like Grey. It's the Pretty Woman effect. (No surprise here, as James even borrows a scene from the film, having Christian order one of everything from the room service menu just as Edward Lewis did before him.)

Most women I know want to be swept off their feet, wined and dined and taken care of while climbing the corporate ladder and wearing or sharing the pants. More so, they want to feel beautiful, desired, appreciated and showered with affection and compliments. It's less about what Grey has in his hand or how he uses it and more about what comes out of his mouth.

As much as we are in charge these days (business, home, kids), it's refreshing to have the man take control sometimes both in and beyond the bedroom. But, as Alpha females, we tend to break our men down, stripping them of their masculinity and then faulting them for not being man enough, the very thing we undid. (Perhaps, instead, we should encourage them to read the book or, gasp, actually communicate our needs and desires.) Christian Grey maintains that manhood. Yet he still needs Anastasia and don't we all want to feel needed? It's that duality, I believe, that has women captivated. Add to that his fit physique, good looks, impressive accomplishments and a touch of mystery and he's the perfect fictional package. Through Christian Grey, women are experiencing the love affair they never had or have since lost by way of the real world and feminist ideals.

And, while I get the popularity, I also understand the controversy. In an age where women are running for president and running the home, to some it seems a bit of a backwards step to have females clamoring for a book about being submissive. I get the argument, I do, but isn't the right to choose what we fought for? Not that everyone should conform to one way but decide for ourselves what works best, makes us happiest. Why do the two have to be mutually exclusive? These days, a woman can opt to run the boardroom and still be submissive in the bedroom should she choose. What each does in her home, with her mate, is her business. But, ultimately, Fifty Shades is fantasy. If you don't like it, don't read it.

My problem with the book has nothing to do with any of the above. First let me say that, overall, I thought it was an entertaining read. Curious to see what naïve Ana would do, hoping Christian would change his ways and interested enough in their story, James kept me turning the pages. So, at the end of the day, for me, it was a success. But she doesn't need me to tell her that. The 10 million copies sold, $5 million movie deal and addition to the pop culture lexicon (the SNL parody was my favorite) should suffice.

But there were parts of the book that drove me mad. It wasn't the idea that a young woman today would submit (although, personally I would never tolerate anyone, including my man, telling me when and what to eat, how often to exercise or what to wear) or even some of the more graphic, hard-to-stomach scenes. Those parts I can get past. It's the choices James makes that I take issue with.

For starters, Anastasia Steele is supposed to be a 21-year-old from Montesano, Wash., by way of Nevada and Texas. No American college student I know would use the word "smart" to describe her choice in attire. Instead, it seems like something more apt for, I don't know, a fifty-something British novelist.

Smart is not the only hiccup. What modern-day twenty-something woman uses "sex" to describe her vagina or "mean machine" for her computer? And, medulla oblongata? Again, these seem like dated, stuffy, formal terminologies much more suitable for an out of touch, mid-lifer than a progressive young mind.

Beyond that, the repetitive nature of phrases like "narrows his eyes," "breath hitches" and "eyes hooded," to name a few, tripped me up. Surely, James has a thesaurus. For a writer who can pen over a dozen sadomasochistic sex scenes with varying language, reusing the same descriptions ad nauseam seems lazy or looked over.

Also, what male who isn't a hair stylist or a father knows how to braid? I mean... And, don't get me started on the inner goddess or subconscious!

All of these things may seem trivial and perhaps they are, but they're my own "hard limits." (Or are they soft? I'm so confused!) For me, there are too many of these moments that disrupt the flow of the narrative. I'd be in a scene, transfixed by Christian, scared for Ana and then propelled out by jarring prose and questionable word choice. Suddenly, the natural voice was not so natural.

Still, despite my gripes, I'm interested, anxious even, to see the trajectory that the second and third installments in the trilogy take and, ultimately, what happens with Ms. Steele and Mr. Grey. James might be infuriatingly sloppy but, a Twilight fan herself, she knows a winning formula when she writes it. So, I'm off to the bookstore. Add me to the list of (critical) fans!

 

Follow Natalie Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nlt25

FOLLOW BOOKS