Posted on

Book review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by E. L. James

*UPDATED* (2 July 2012)


This is going to be my first ever book review. I’ve never done a book review before. I’ve always thought about doing it, but I get so absorbed with reading so many interesting books a little too voraciously that the idea of sitting down and thinking critically about literature becomes nonexistent.

Out of all the books in the Romance department that I’ve read before, this is the most beguiling one of all. Far from Lisa Kleypas’ lovemaking-in-the-carriage scenes or Jane Austen’s witty, passionate characters, our heroine, Anastasia Steele, is an equal mix of these powerful psyches, only younger.

Ana is a 21-year-old college graduate of literature who’s ready to go out to the publishing world. She’s also a virgin, until she meets the handsome billionaire Christian Grey, who offered to get involved in a BDSM relationship exclusively with him.

Ana first came face-to-face with the wealthy 26-year-old entrepreneur Mr. Grey when she interviewed him for the student newspaper. She was dumbstruck, intimidated, yet lured by his charms, repeatedly falling off balance in his presence during the first chapters of the book. Not having a clue that she exudes the same “bewitching” effect on Grey, the manipulative man invited her to sign a nondisclosure agreement for him to have complete physical control over her life, putting her health and safety (and eventually happiness) above his own as a dominant, in exchange for Ana becoming his very own sex slave.

After learning Ana’s “lack of experience”, Grey became angry with himself for assuming otherwise. He agreed to give more time for Ana to consider signing agreement, though their mutual chemistry is unavoidable the whole time. He decided Ana needs his full attention, guidance, and “training” as he makes compromises (which he never does) for Ana’s limitations without satisfying his own kinky desires, all the while they started sleeping together like normal couples do. Much like Ana has never had a boyfriend all her life, Grey has never done the “girlfriend thing”, which is just a glimpse of his overall psyche that constantly needs to control.

Lots of sex and orgasms later, Ana slowly begins to see the Christian Grey hidden from the public as she unravels the dark past that makes him his dominating, often sadistic, yet melancholic “fucked up” self today.

So, everyone’s reading it. Well, mostly 30-something women and their burning loins who can’t put the book down. However, this “mommy porn” has captured the attention of younger and older women alike – even men. They read it for different reasons, yet what’s most compelling about James’ masterpiece is how it marries the (primal) gender roles of men and women in our modern separatistic culture – especially during a time when feminism is largely advocated.

It’s a worldwide phenomenon. More than 10 million copies were sold and still on demand for reprints every day since its publication. Suddenly, women are talking about their deepest sexual desires openly with their girlfriends, and men can put away their Maxims and FHMs away to join their private conversations. For married couples who read the book together, it helps either in reviving a long-forgotten sex life or in exploring their sexualities furthermore.

“It’s an invigorating book and encouraging for a man to really be uninhibited sexually and to really try pleasing his partner, because she really can have orgasms and just might really enjoy them,” said student Gern Blanston to International Business Times.

As an Asian 22-year-old girl, I’m more interested about how it will affect the women in Eastern cultures, which obviously will take a longer time to observe.

Part of why I purchased my e-book was because of my curiosity as to how this erotic trilogy has swept millions of women worldwide under their feet. The only thing I knew about it before was that it’s a bigger project first developed as a fanfiction of the Twilight saga, which I’ve read about 2 pages of the first book and has never been interested since. And so I waited till the fashionable Fifty Shades trend to die down, but it didn’t. In fact, there’s been heated talks about its film adaptation not long after the book has lingered on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks (Universal Pictures has secured the rights of the film in March. Competing studios include Warner Bros., Sony, and Paramount Pictures).

Personally, I enjoyed the book very much, as I could really relate with the characters. I admire Anastasia’s intelligence (“smart mouth”, Christian Grey would say) and her quiet beauty hidden beneath her English novels, plus the fact that her name is where mine has its roots from (this is not a valid reason, I admit :D), and that I’m also dating a working guy who’s 6 years my senior while I am graduating from college.

Naive, yet possessing the modern female’s independent spirit, Ana is the epitome of the average man’s fantasy girlfriend (“Always so eager, Miss Steele,” Christian Grey kept saying). Despite her virginity, she’s far from shy to try new things, and so adventurous to explore even the most dangerous places of her own sexuality previously untouched, giving and trusting the beautiful man she barely knows all of her soul despite knowing his twisted practices. Before, she never knew she could withstand spanking, much less enjoy it. “Yes, sir,” she kept agreeing to his vicious deeds, letting him grab her pigtails and hitting her butt simultaneously.

Same thing for Christian Grey: He’s Mars in human form, constantly in war with his inner demons. From the outside, his divine physique and godly power over Grey Enterprises are all too alluring for most women. Other than his kinky obsessions, he’s an honest, kind, faithful, trustworthy, resourceful, generous, and wise man.

In return for Ana’s complete surrender, Grey is more than overjoyed to own all of Ana’s six first orgasms “and all of them belong to me,” he boasted. Taking a woman’s territory before anyone else does is like Christmas to a man’s ego. The I-belong-to-you-and-you-belong-to-me pleasure normally shared between couples is further saturated with Christian’s and Ana’s dominant/submissive relationship, which is why I think this refreshing book is a major boost for couples to be better at communicating with each other and become braver in talking about their wants and needs.

Despite its vanilla quality for the tastes of men, who are naturally so visual and would rather watch real porn, Fifty Shades of Grey has attracted and served meaningful impacts on men across first-world countries, where women are increasingly becoming breadwinners of the household. Men now understands that just like themselves, women have desires and fantasies too. (See the 2010 Men’s Health poll).

Another factor to highlight is that trust is a the big glue that makes a dominant/submissive relationship to work, and trust have always been my issue when dealing with men. “Relationships like this are built on honesty and trust,” said Grey to Ana. “If you don’t trust me – trust me to know how I’m affecting you, how far I can how with you, how far I can take you – if you can’t be honest with me, then we really can’t do this.” My boyfriend has been tolerant with my trust issues for a little over a year now, and I’m slowly opening up to him more. This comes down to a very interesting perspective from Sally Quinn on Washington Post. Reading this opens up my eyes, and now it’s easier to spot the value of trust when Quinn translates the enduring submissive fantasies of women into religious terms.

I’ve never asked God for what I really want since I was born. I’ve never wanted anything from my boyfriend since the first day we met.  I never ask, and yet I didn’t understand why I receive  every thing in abundance. I’m the kind of person who takes criticisms seriously and becomes weak from compliments. I used to think I don’t worth much to ask for anything from anybody, so I try to learn to do everything myself. Self-sufficience is the best barrier from the risks of dependence, and it’s depressing to now realize that this is just another form of cowardice.

It wasn’t long until I felt the huge desire to give it all up – surrender my college and ambitions and dreams of an amazing future husband and all – which was a couple of years ago when the thoughts of committing suicide frequently runs through my head. I’ve never had a normal relationship with my father, the way Christian Grey has never had a proper relationship. I don’t know the man who passed down his genetic information on me, other than his passion for golf and his role as the primary source of income for my mother, my brothers, and I. However, during those times I desperately wished to give up life, I opened my crying heart out to him, the stranger I’ve always called my dad, out of everybody else that I am close with. The realization that I could trust him for listening to me and that he cares for me… surprised me. All of a sudden I do have a father figure, even though he’s done some of the most unforgivable things to my mother and their marriage. From then on it affects how I perceive my mother (high school graduate; 100% traditional stay-at-home mom; depends fully on husband for living costs) and the woman I want to become and don’t want to become. Now that I think about it, I think it was my Electra complex doing her thing. But this is a totally different subject.

In this case, my dad was the perfect embodiment of my “Red Room of Pain”, the so-called playroom where Christian Grey and his sex toys and equipments take charge of his submissives, and also the source of my deepest wounds, trust issues, and generalized opinion I have of men.

Every one has their own “Red Room of Pain”.  I think the allure of complete submission, especially among women today, long deemed as the weaker sex, is widespread precisely because women are publicly given bigger roles of power and control in the society, yet somehow feeling subconsciously guilty about it. “Women have more sexual freedom and more power than ever before in our history, but that does not mean they have a lot of either, and it doesn’t mean they don’t have complicated feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness,” said feminist Katha Pollitt to NewsWeek writer Katie Roiphe in her article “The Fantasy Life of Working Women.”

Without someone she can trust to fully rely on, dependent upon, ask for things, provide for things, be completely honest with, and share a loving relationship with, (all of which are God’s pleasures He enjoys from men and women alike), a woman can only fantasize some more – wherever her imaginations take her to believe in her worth beyond her will.

The book has given me such an insightful reading experience to explore my fantasies… and so I am definitely buying the next two books!