Christian Grey’s invitation is some siren call. I have finally read the trilogy. I did it over the weekend, on a much-welcomed break from a somewhat protracted research work. I deliberately didn’t read the book reviews or articles about it because I wanted to approach the story without undue influence.
On the first few pages, when Anastasia Steele meets the “devastatingly beautiful and young” Christian Grey CEO, I thought, is this another vampire story? Because nowadays men who are young, beautiful (and still ooze masculinity) at the same time gazillionaires are vampires. I mean, is there a devastatingly beautiful Alpha Male among Fortune’s Under 40 Billionaires? Blame it on a precedent: Twilight. Was the author, EL James, inspired by Twilight’s Bella and Edward?, I thought. True enough, poring over articles after, Fifty Shades of Grey is a Twilight fan fiction spin off.
Bella and Edward are reincarnated here in Fifty Shades of Grey. Christian Grey is, at least before Anastasia’s unconditional love has touched his soul, the personified dark side of Edward. He confesses that “I don’t do the girlfriend thing”; “I don’t make love. I fuck – hard”; and even after pursuing Anastasia, “I’m not the man for you.” To these, the female heroines differ in their response. While Bella broods by her lonesome, Anastasia has more spunk thanks to the constant barrage of advice from her inner goddess. But both are intuitive – isn’t that the mark usually rendered to females? Anastasia has got her finger on the spot when minutes after meeting Christian she intuits him for a control freak. But it is only in the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, when the reader is given insight into Christian Grey’s before-Anastasia persona: cold and ruthless. Somehow, because of this persona, Christian’s usage of Elliot’s “laters, baby” endearment does not exactly fit him. Yet he feeds the world’s poor, plays the piano (one who creates music is surely warm?), knows his wine and food like the back of his hand, funds agricultural research, believer in sustainable design. Fifty Shades of Christian Grey. Anastasia has never been more intrigued and curious.
Although the book is not a thriller there is a touch of it in the hints Christian gives Anastasia in their first meetings. A gazillionaire casually appearing and buying in a small town hardware – doesn’t he have staff to do that? How is it that the beautiful definitely not gay masculine who doesn’t do girlfriends is hot on her trail? How come he recognizes her mobile number when she didn’t give it to him? How does he know her home address without her telling him? What does he want to show her in his home when they’re alone? And, what has a Non Disclosure Agreement got to do with her seeing him? Maybe, I thought, it’s really a vampire rehash. Only this time the vampire has gotten more sophisticated and legal.
I bet it was also a puzzle to readers. In this, it is not only Anastasia’s tame guess – my guess was equally tame, a game room of pool (though it turns out there is a separate pool room) – which sends the usually polite Christian into laughter. I bet the 70M readers cannot anymore think about Xbox without also thinking about the playroom. E L James is ingeniously naughty. When the “damn door” was thrown open, readers’ response could’ve been Anastasia’s own. Holy fuck, indeed. Totally not Xbox. Definitely not vampire. But close. The devastatingly beautiful CEO is into BDSM.
But then sensibility – and, fascination? – overrides fear and horror because rather than bolting and “running to the hills” as Christian is expecting, Anastasia stays. Takes in the whole “Red Room of Pain; though she’s assured it could also be of pleasure. Christian Grey’s playroom. This dark room, with its atmosphere of secretiveness, chillingly contrasts with the white and open outlay of the apartment. She wanders around the room. Inspecting this and that implement. Christian Grey’s playthings.
The curtain is parted at this point to reveal the private Christian Grey. I know that BDSM is real but until Christian Grey I haven’t thought about how an onlooker could tell whether, say, a business tycoon, or a colleague perhaps, man or woman, is a Christian Grey. Christian’s own family – his parents – has not suspected, instead taking the usual rote thinking that he might be gay; though his staff knows his “lifestyle”. While being perceived “gay” he has had 15 women BDSM partners. And they’re all similar in looks Anastasia including. You have to reach the third book ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ in order to know that he had been really rough with the 15 no to mention capturing their moments in photos for “insurance”; Anastasia’s punishments are tame in comparison (which puzzles Grey no end – who is he becoming?). In fact, one of the 15 has a mental breakdown and goes after Anastasia. But thanks to the NDA, each one is under duress against revealing things about the arrangement.
And why does Christian Grey CEO wants to do it so much to Anastasia? The answer is in the third book, where Grey mentions that domination used properly could bring a non-assertive to heel. In short, he finds no greater pleasure than bringing a submissive like Anastasia up to heel. His first impression of Anastasia’s clumsiness and stutterings during her interview of him has stuck. Plus he’s really got it bad for her. But he continually fails to see that seemingly fragile Anastasia is as hard as her surname. Unlike him, she could deliver fatal karate chops and fire a gun (Grey, incidentally, is a no-gun advocate who does not approve of his security touting a gun. Anastasia finds this ridiculous and urges him to learn to fire one. Even then, Grey is oblivious to her inner strength.).
So yes – “what is the appropriate response to finding out a potential lover is a complete freaky sadist or masochist?,” Anastasia internalizes. “Fear… yes… But weirdly not of him – I don’t think he’d hurt me, well, not without my consent.” In this, again, Anastasia is a reprisal of Bella. But isn’t their conviction the stuff of real life love and marriage? Despite being unrelated and almost strangers, each partner dares entrusts his or her life – lifetimes – to the other inspite of that small voice of warning that there is a possibility one could get hurt by the other. I myself cannot get past this point. I understand Grey’s control-freakedness; it is within its confines that one has control. Outside this, it’s only freakedness. But even control freak Christian has to give it to Anastasia – she has not bolted.
The crux of why the story is taken up by a wide range of readers is really simple: The never-ending story of true love overcoming all odds. It is the banner across classes and age groups. Powerful men and women actors in Hollywood, for instance. Kris Aquino here. They don’t lack in physical gifts, social, and economic assets yet their lives – at least in the glossies – appear to hang in the balance of love. The women despite their attributes, power and accomplishments seek to be with another. To have babies. To have families. They seek yet again when a relationship ends. For some, at least four. Why do they do this? Fifty shades of love, baby. Crap? Seven shades no! Take out love and what is there to live for in this world? Besides, people always love a love story.
Anyone can relate with the championing of the underdog: a small town college graduate with only USD600 or so in the bank hooking up with and liberating the ruthless BDSM gazillionaire. Liberating her inner goddess as well. Finding her own niche in the world. Also, if I’m guessing correctly, readers have rooted for the heroine in the pit against the boyfriend’s exes, particularly “The Troll Mrs. Robinson Bitch”. And who does not want to be in a dream job? to be wealthy? a dream house? a dream husband or wife or partner to go with it? In an interview, Gretchen Barretto revealed she carries in her purse a prayer booklet for The Right Partner in life. What surprised me is that she’s beautiful but why should she pray for one? Shouldn’t that men scurry to her without her praying? The point is, praying for The Right Partner seems a medieval practice but as it goes beautiful women do pray for The Right Partner. It is understandable then when Grey appeared and showed interest, regardless of the intent, Anastasia lost her heart. Or, put in another way, by losing it she gained him.
Timing, too. The world is still aglow in the aftermath of Bella and Edward, their “bloody” meeting, and their meadow. Christian and Anastasia, too, are portrayed along the same lines. Anastasia interviewed Christian CEO as a favor to her editor-roommate who is down with flu. Realizing his luck, Christian tells her he’s glad she was the one who interviewed him. As their relationship develops and stabilizes, they eventually find their meadow. A picturesque spread along Puget Sound. Twi fans are not yet ready to let go of the thrill.
As to the story being anti-feminist, I guess when one is in love feminism becomes, for some reason, a moot point; though in Fifty Shades, feminism is imparted as a quiet but persistent force which eventually smoothens the rock. Feminist power cannot be the loud and public rah-rah all the time. It can be quiet. Flexible when necessary. But firm. It can happen within a family. A relationship.
But I’d like to hear more about what men say about the book; whether or not from the male perspective it is masochist. Is there truth in Christian’s “we aim to please” buzzword? In what way are men being molded by their families, communities, society to “please” women? Because the responses form a straight line toward feminism in literature. If the book was the story of Christian and Elena, Christian’s sometime Dominant – I still would like to hear what men have to say about it; how they feel about submitting to women and how it shapes them.
The book is classified as erotica. But after reading through three scenes with a straight face, “the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh”. As I’m very poor with navigational directions, I’m disoriented with Anastasia’s constant use of “south” such as “south of my navel”. Where? where exactly is “south of my navel”? I read on and of course there it is. The classification is lost on me. Also, I seriously think that without Twilight as its precedent, Fifty Shades would’ve been banned as porn. But because it begins and ends as a love story, despite being quite heavy with explicit scenes, the sex scenes are glossed over. In fact, without them, the story would’ve slumped. Ingenious. Besides, the beloved priests are blessedly quiet; otherwise eyebrows will be raised as to what they’re doing with Fifty Shades in the confessional.
And finally, the “kinky fuckery”. What has finally made this less a fearful and more of a pleasurable experience for Anastasia is the fact that there are limits and that these limits are clearly expressed and respected. Without these, the experience is only a “Red Room of Pain”. But I’m more intrigued with where Christian gets his inspirations. He’s like a magician with his bottomless hat. Anastasia doesn’t fret about it, only that “I’m sure you’ll come up with something, Mr. Grey”. The Dom is not to be envied then. But I suspect that with him as her “master”, Anastasia, after five years of marriage, will emerge as the Dominant; though in all aspects except BDSM sex she has been the unassuming quietly aggressive Dom. Will naturally-controlling Christian acquiesce? That could be the fourth installation: Fifty Shades of Submissive. But before this, they’re making a movie. Just speculating who will be Christian, Anastasia, and Elena is fifty enough.
Don’t get me wrong if I’m all praises because the above is a visceral assessment. I’m sure the experts (such as this) have said that in technical terms the book is quite wanting. I for one got bored with the repetitive conversation and Christian’s and Anastasia’s making out after each fight it makes me wonder if E L James is imparting something other than BDSM, painful childhood, and consistent love. Like it’s really about sex addiction perhaps? But no. It’s clear what the author is aiming at. It’s the first thing I read in the book. She’s not writing because she wants a Pulitzer Prize. She writes because she wants to make readers fall in love again. And she’s nailed it. With 70 Million sold. Plus there’s the movie. That’s way over and beyond fifty shades!