Almost everyone knows by now that this debut novel by a young, female British writer has become an international publishing phenomenon. In a matter of months 40 million copies have been sold, the fastest initial sales ever known. It’s speculated that most of the readers are women, but what the whole world is quite certain about is that the subject matter is something to do with sadomasochistic sex.
The first point to be made is that this book doesn’t read like pornography. It’s a reasonably interesting novel, though its focus on only two major characters limits its scope for plot-development. Its sex scenes are just like those in many other novels, with many of the S&M elements shadowy possibilities kept for the future rather than actual events happening before our eyes.
It may spoil the book for some, but it will be useful for others to know that during this entire 500-page novel the heroine only gets spanked (by hand) twice, has some steel balls joined by a cord inserted inside her, gets lightly stimulated with a soft-leather “flogger,” and is, in the final pages, given six hard strokes with a belt, an experience that causes her to walk out of the relationship. These scenes occupy some 20 pages.
Genuine S&M enthusiasts, in other words, are not going to get very excited over this book. They will probably read it, just out of curiosity as to what small window the world at large has gained into their world. But compared with the pornographic reading-matter specifically aimed at them, Fifty Shades of Grey is very small beer indeed.
By comparison, the regular sex in the book is extensive, and not greatly different from what’s found in a million and one bestsellers. But this is the point of the story. Seattle’s Christian Grey, 27, has had relationships with 15 willing “submissives,” girls eager for pain, before meeting Anastasia Steele, 22, and it’s the first time he’s become involved with someone with no apparent predilection for his favorite sex game. The sex he has with Anastasia is thus the first regular sex he’s ever experienced.
Fifty Shades of Grey
By E.L. James
Arrow Books, 512 pages
This, of course, allows the novel to take the protracted course it does, expanding in a leisurely way into what are now three volumes. (The two sequels are Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.) Encounters with willing S&M partners would probably only allow for a book of, say, 60 pages, with sex occupying the last 50. Tension between the personalities and enthusiasms of two such different characters as these, however, are the stuff of which real novels are made.
And this is, in many respects, a real novel. The usual propositions where erotic fiction is concerned are that the writing is poor and the characters mere ciphers. Neither is the case here. The two main characters are developed in depth. And there are quite a few minor characters in the book too — Anastasia’s mother, step-father, college friends and flat-mate, Christian’s brother and man-servant, plus the much-discussed figure of the older woman, Mrs. Robinson, who initiated Christian into S&M practices when he was a boy of 15.
As for the style, it’s fluent, easy to read, but also intelligent and in places astute. Anastasia, who tells the story, is at the beginning just about to graduate in English Literature and makes comparisons of her new situation with those of Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Christian actually presents her with priceless first editions of Hardy’s novel, a gift Anastasia considers far too expensive to accept.