I’ve been writing this review for four hundred years. Seems funny, because this only came out whatever many months ago. But for real, I think this is the longest bother I’ve had with a review. This whole review is tl;dr, and a ton of it was written while drunk, although I’ve certainly had time to clean up the typing, given the 400 years. So the usual caveats are in place: I might talk spoilers, though I try to note them. I also cuss a fair amount, and there’s some sex-talk, but if you don’t like cussing or sex-talk, then you won’t like this book anyway, and what the hell are you doing reading reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey? You know what this book is about.
Some Blather about The Novel, The Romance, and The Fanfic
I’m not even sure it could rightly be called a novel, if you get right down to snobbish definitions involving, like, narrative structure and the experience of reality and stuff. Observe my man Nathaniel Hawthorne making the distinction between a Novel and a Romance in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables:
When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.
Nate was living before the invention of the modern romance, so he can be forgiven in assuming his writers were dudes. (Although, according to this definition, extremely dude-y books such as Moby Dick; Or The Whale are Romances. So there.) I mean, maybe this crusty distinction between Novel and Romance – even the capital letters are an indication of moldering taxonomy – has been exploded by the contemporary creation of the romance novel. You got you peanut butter in my chocolate! Etc. And to digress even farther, this distinction between Novel and Romance becomes unworkable fast when you start factoring in any kind of genre fiction at all – scifi, fantasy, the detective novel, Noir, the post-modern novel, the action adventure, Westerns, (some) satires, parodies, the Gothic novel &c &c. Or maybe unworkable is the wrong word – maybe the word I’m searching for is pointless. So you’ve got an extremely small subset of books that strive for some kind of hewing to probable reality and psychological exactness, and then you have 95% of the books published in the world. Maybe even 95% is low.
I’m putting in a paragraph break here to indicate I just spent way too much fucking time screwing around on the Internet looking at various critical definitions of the novel, arguing and muttering with all of them, and realizing if I go with one to prove some amorphous gut reaction about how weird a novel this is, that’s not really going to get me anywhere. Mirriam-Oxford-Whatever defines the novel as a book of a certain length that goes on about some characters until it ends which is good enough for me. (As I’ve been recently called out for paraphrasing, be aware this is exactly that.) So. That doesn’t make this less of a weird novel, and that probably boils down to its fanfic nature.
So, fanfic? Much hay has been made about this being a work of Twilight fanfic. And much of that hay discounts all fanfic as a form of plagiarism, which I find a little severe. (I mean, this might be a straw man argument I’m fighting – that fanfic = plagiarism – but I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of bananas that many times it has been stated that if this started life as fanfic, it doesn’t deserve to be put to paper, cannot be considered as a work of fiction. I get a big stink eye when certain kinds of authorial motivations are used a priori to dismiss fictions. You can put in a big rampage about blurb-craft that seeks to equate everything dystopian with The Hunger Games – everything with vampires with Twilight – everything with wizards with Harry Potter. And then, while we’re at it, pretending that narrative similarities between these books and countless other fictions that predate them renders that book some kind of fiction crime. What is up with this?
I once had a dude tell me with absolute earnestness that Star Wars was “just a remake of The Hidden Fortress” which is near one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Yes, they have their similarities – in the same way that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games have similarities, both to each other and to dozens of other fictions, from Battle Royal – Ralph Ellison’s opening chapter to Invisible Man – Lord of the Fliesto Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome down to the freaking Theseus myth. It is the worst kind of authenticity-seeking hipsterism to treat books with similarities – especially freaking genre fiction which by its very nature deals in set motifs and narrower stylistic parameters – as failures if they aren’t so stunningly original that your face melts off. Originality is bullshit. For fuck’s sake, people, the ancient Greeks should be suing the shit out of the entirety of Western civilization – including Shakespeare, that rip-off artist of the first order – and on that level, and I have close to zero patience for it. There is nothing new under the sun. Get over it.
Which is not to say I don’t understand that there are complexities of race/gender/culture/placement that result in one thing being noticed and another falling down the well, and that can be monumentally unfair, awkward, or stupid. There are better romances out there. Hell, there’s better Twilight fanfic out there. We can wring our hands about why exactly this piece of shit got to be the biggest piece of shit since Twilight, but ultimately, that’s not really this book’s fault. It can’t bear up to scrutiny, but then I’m not sure it was even trying. Popularity isn’t a criticism in its own right. Though it does get people indisposed towards the fictions at hand to read them – resulting in some unfortunate book/reader pairings. It’s true that I probably shouldn’t have read this – I’m a crank about romance novels in the general, if not the specific. I’m no Twilight fan, even though I have some serious obsessiveness about that series and how nutty it is.
Anyway, point of massive digression being, I admit I’m the kind of girl who, when I hear the words “authenticity” or “originality,” I reach for my pistol. Which is not to say I don’t believe some books are total rip-offs of others – The Sword of Shannara (which I like to think of as the s-word of shannara) being a complete and unvarnished rip-off of The Lord of the Rings – but while I hate the shit out of that book, I hate it for being super crappy on its own terms – ripping off the bad parts of Tolkien and leaving the dross – not because the rip-off occurred in the first place. I know I’m an outlier on this one, but I perversely kinda liked Eragon – the first book anyhow – because while it’s Star Wars in Middle Earth with some Dragonflight thrown in for shits and giggles, it’s absolutely naively exuberant. That kid is having a freaking blast playing in worlds way, way above his pay grade, and the glee of his rip-off is both charming and infectious. (Though, of course, objectively fucking terrible, and to seasoned readers, a Frankenstein’s monster of parts ripped from other fictions.)
Because, probably, a lot of this snarling about fanfic has to do with the fact that Twilight is objectively terrible, and much more recently written. I can name you several hundred thousand retellings of Shakespeare stories, which, my friends, could be classed as AU fanfic (AU standing for “alternate universe”, something I learned because of this book.) A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, When You Were Mine, Prospero’s Books, Scotland, PA, “O”, et freaking cetera. But, first, Shakespeare is not objectively terrible, and second, he is out of copyright. But lord knows, hitching your cart to something that everyone knows sucks and is also insanely popular is so evil and an attempt at a cheap cash-in, which hitching your cart to something that’s part of the Canon is totally a’ight, despite it being an obvious attempt to add intertextual gravitas. I don’t want to get into it too far, but plagiarism and copyright infringement are two different things, though there is admittedly an overlap. I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis or anything, and I will bow to someone who does, but the AU-ness of this little world makes straight copying unlikely. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that while I can see the ways this narrative owes certain structures to Twilight – the gormless girl at the center, the stalkerish love interest, a catalog of secondary players – I’m not sure these things are unique enough to say that Twilight invented them. By which I mean, Twilight didn’t invent them. This book is stupid enough in its own way to be, if not uniquely stupid, than differently stupid enough from Twilight to be its own stupid thing. And, like Eragon, Fifty Shades is absolutely bone-shattering in its love for its shitty characters, bad prose, and earnest enjoyment of its source material. Which, good for it, although I can see how this book is shittier than Twilight, on both prose and character levels. Which, wow.
Interestingly, while Ms. James’s crimes against prose are different from Ms. Meyers’s, there is a weird similarity to the enthusiasm of their badnesses. Maybe it’s tone? You can tell they are writing their little hearts out, thesaurus at the knee, cartoon sweat leaping off their brows. A for effort, and I actually mean that in a non-bitchy way. I don’t get the impression that either writer has delusions about their writing abilities – this isn’t full of attempts to pull a fast one or bullshit you about how they are deconstructing the form or some such nonsense – a clumsy plug I see trying to justify a lot of D-grade pulp. It’s a straightforward first person narrative with a narrator who claims to be exactly what she thinks she is. (Whether she is is another ball of wax.)
However, and this is a big however, that is not to say there aren’t some gaping holes in motivation and sense that can only be plugged if you consider this as a derivative work. There’s this pretty great review of the book City of Bones on Ferretbrain that defines how fanfic works pretty neatly. I’m just going to quote a little bit, but you should probably go read the article at some point.
Essentially City of Bones reads like fanfic – and I don’t mean that as kneejerk indicator of poor quality, I mean that it reads like something constructed for a different purpose, functioning on a different ruleset. […] I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar […] Fan fiction, even if you’re looking at a 100,000 word AU fic, seems to be all about the establishment of moments, which need not necessarily (and probably don’t) exist as part of a continuum of moments.
This is absolutely the opposite to a book.
I mean, obviously, the thing I like about this definition is that the writer has the same qualm I do about how this work functions as a novel, though she uses the term book. I mean, obviously this is a book – I can shart out 50,000 words and have it printed and bound and call it a book – but it’s not a coherent narrative, either in terms of character development or in narrative structure – it’s a series of moments. I think it’s possible to break structure – I think the books in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series taken individually, especially after the first – don’t pull off the whole narrative unity thing that well – the fucking cliffhangers – but they do rise to believable crescendos within the terms of that world. There are stakes. People change. And ultimately, taken as a whole, the series constitutes a coherent arc. But the terms of this world have some serious split-personality which blows its potential plausibility. It’s not even so much that I think it’s tricky to add sex into a narrative that is functionally virginity porn and a morality tale about the female libido. It’s that the terms of the Forksverse and Shadeland are fundamentally at odds with one another, and that even in a Romantic sensibility, not a Novelistic one, this world’s order wobbles.
Bella, Ana, Christian, Edward
So, to the characters. Taken without her Bella-ish beginnings, Ana is a deeply nonsensical character. I mean, she is anyway, but her nonsense makes a little more sense with Bella in the mix. Bella is a pretty solid hot nerd reader-proxy just waiting for the make-over to release her inner Swann – get it? get it? I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name – whose inexperience and virginity is completely justifiable due to her age. Age her up a couple years to just-out-of-college, and you have some serious problems. Repeatedly, Ana says and thinks things – this is first person, so we’re privy to every single fucking thought – and thought while fucking, badumptss – that imply she has never had one single solitary sexual thought her whole life – up to and including the fact that she has never masturbated. Now, I’m not saying that 22 year olds who haven’t been kissed don’t exist, I’m saying that 22 year olds who have never once contemplated their own sexuality don’t exist. This is not some sly, damaged narrator who is playing coy about her motivations either – every thought is bald as a baby’s ass. But if that 22 year old is secretly a 17 year old from Forks, WA, then it jibes slightly better.
You know, until it doesn’t, because say what you will about Bella – and I’ve said my share – she is completely capable of expressing her desire for Edward. She’s the one pushing sexual contact every single step of the way. Both books spend a lot of focus on strange somewhat disembodied aspects of their mens – Edward’s skin, which you might remember is marble-like, alabaster and cold, or Christian’s long, elegant, tapering, ET-like fingers – and both these boys exist as a sort of libido-body for their female protagonists. Which is to say, both Edward and Christian are unicorns drawn to the virginity of the female character, with their horns a-blazing, and you may insert all the innuendo that you see fit. Edward though, however often Meyer tries to underline his predatory nature, is the poster boy for true-love-waits, the cauterizing masculine rationality that puts the brakes on dangerous, deadly female sexuality. Not to reiterate my Twilight review to much, but Edward exists to both canonize and criticize female desire – the male version of the Madonna/whore – the God/devil. But much more weighted to God.
This is where 50 Shades starts to fall to pieces for me. There’s this character in this little seen 90s movie played by Eric Stoltz – I can’t remember the name – who has been working on his dissertation for like ten years or so. His favorite phrase is, “and I’m paraphrasing myself here”. That’s what I’m about to do. I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I believe very strongly that the paranormal in fiction – that thing, like vampirism, that shifts a relatively boring ass story full of the ornament of everyday stew-making and class-attending to the red, the thing that makes a Novel a Romance – is something that allows story-tellers to explore the edges of cultural expectations. Zombies equal the fear of the mob cut with the theatrics of fear-based siege societies; werewolves equal the id/ego split; vampires equal the parasitic aristocrat and also, sometimes, the Freudian sex/death equation. Ghosts are our embarrassing angry pasts. So Edward’s vampirism is a heightened metaphor for male sexuality seen through a female lens, or a nod to certain theologies, or something. Whatever it is, it involves the cultural constructions of imaginary though partially agreed upon group identities. The group of vampires have these characteristics – let’s run them to their logical conclusions.
Twilight works, on the level it works, because Edward is unreal, this saint/stranger, vegetarian vampire impossibility. He’s obviously a unicorn, probably more likely than an under-30 hot-ass billionaire like Christian – because seriously, the only under-30 billionaire, hot-ass or not, I can think of outside of crown princes of women-hating theocracies is the dick who invented facebook. (Who isn’t under-30 anymore, but was once.) And no thank you to all. But Christian’s vampirism is not that he’s an under-30 hot-ass billionaire, it’s that he is a member of BDSM culture, a very real, very marginalized group of people.
I’m not competent to talk about how the BDSM community works, but I get very very fucking twitchy and worried when real groups of people are used in the fantasies of others, especially when those others are members of the over-culture. I might even go far as to say it’s shitty as shit to treat that culture like some kind of half-assed paranormal ornament on the par with vampirism. (This is not to say that BDSM culture can’t be criticized, just because it’s a sub-group or something. I am a sex-positive, kink-positive feminist – in that I think that our sexualities are vital and inextricable parts of our identities, and that kinks are a part of the typical variation of human sexuality, but I also believe that issues of consent can get very murky indeed once you start factoring in gender, class, and personal experience. I might be in full-on Minority Warrior mode – attempting to score points from my position of straight, white, middle-class comfort when I say things about the use of BDSM culture in this book. I honestly don’t know.) (I mean, maybe the real problem is that there’s just enough half-assed “facts” about BDSM culture for this to be a problem. Christian does a tolerable job of explaining BDSM, but everything he says is constantly undercut by Ana’s freaking out and eye-bugging. And undercut by how James seems to be positioning him to have a big “emotional break-though” when he explains what’s up with his refusal to be touched and the scars on his back and stuff. There’s a bright red arrow pointing to some heavily bullshit Freudian mama-hurt-me-so-I’m-afraid-to-loooooove thing, which makes me want to smash things with a hammer. Cheap psychology really pisses me off; we are all more complicated than this red arrow.) All of this hand-wringing and parenthetical bs aside, I get worried when we (whoever the fuck we is) start using real, non-imaginary people as sort of half-assed paranormal boogies, ascribing them stock psychological backgrounds. I’m not competent to talk about BDSM culture, and I get the distinct impression that neither is James. And, drawing conclusions about BDSM culture from this book alone is a huge, huge freaking mistake.
The sex scenes in this book are competently written, once you cut out literally every single thing Ana thinks while they are going on, and everything that happens before or after. All of the sex toys and contract stuff feels a little google-y – like James read some wiki articles about Ben Wa balls and hard limits and tossed those suckers in there – but in concrete, physical terms, there isn’t a lot of coyness and euphemism. Which is the sort of thing I hates in a sex scene – no “apex of her thighs,” no “globes,” no “manroots.” Good. Whether this sort of thing will turn you on is another issue entirely – and this is the goal of erotica, non? – and one that I can’t answer. Desire is a personal game, maybe even more so than comedy, which can factor in less id-based orientations like politics. And, I shouldn’t be swinging at this right now, but scoring point trashing other people’s sexual responses is lazy bullshit, my friends, and something I’ve seen happen far too often in reviews of 50 Shades.
Which is not to say there isn’t a lot here that is, as the term goes, problematic. But the sex is competently written, if you’re into super mild bondage, and contains just enough understanding of kink to pretend to be kink-positive, if you choose to ignore huge freaking swathes of the novel. And you can, absolutely. I got my copy from the library, which is a little eeww, because the book easily fell open to certain, ahem, passages. They were well thumbed, like you do. I mean, how many Ayla books were read solely for their poor sexual content? Or Wifey? or Flowers In The Attic? (Just because I’ve dated myself here as from the pre-Internet era, these books were heavily stolen from mom in youth, and read pretty exclusively for the sex scenes.) (Not my mom – no way – I’d more likely get some pomo behemoth– but as a generation.) I get the impression that beyond all the griping I’m doing about this being a fan-fic-y series of moments, 50 Shades is being read by a large number of people in an even more decontextualized manner: sex scene, sex scene, sex scene, end, like playing a video game and skipping the cut scenes, because who freaking needs ’em?
But let’s talk about Ana for a little bit more, hmm? I’ve said before that she’s a nonsensical character – she does not hold together – but the ways she fractures are completely, utterly fascinating. She’s got a “subconscious” and an “Inner Goddess” – fully embodied, fully voiced aspects of herself that she is in dialogue with almost all the time. She sees them tap their toes or hears them say things she can’t. It’s not exactly the angel/devil thing you find in cartoons – though the Inner Goddess seems to exist as a sexual id, mostly. I was most bothered by the subconscious because in almost all the contexts in which Ana talked about her subconscious, she was really referring to her conscious mind. These were thoughts that she was having. There was no sub about it, just to make the shittiest joke ever.
This analogy is going to be tricky to pull off, but bear with me. I think one of the reasons Bella’s voice worked so well for so many of the mom-set – of which I count myself a member, so this is not a disparagement – is that Bella thinks like a housewife. All the stew-making and worrying about her father Charlie’s diet/friends/whatever feels like the running background monologue I have about my family’s welfare, about the state of the fridge, about the fact that the car’s brakes are squeaky, and shouldn’t I figure how to take the car in? Edward appears, fully formed from the head of Eros in his marble-white armor, and distracts her from this everyday banality. He’s a daydream. A daydream with teeth.
But now we have Ana, who is the daydream of a daydream. A housewife dreams of a teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of an untouchable boy. Another housewife dreams that same teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of a boy, and she touches that boy, and he touches back. Eeeek! Bella doesn’t get her freak on until the last book, once she’s gotten married like a boss, but Ana dives in, um, like a boss. New simile please. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ana is this sexual tabula rasa – an unwritten sexual being – and we get to watch while she is written into being. Ana would probably be a better character if she didn’t have Bella in her DNA – this moralistic over-presence that reads femininity in very conservative terms. Ana’s subconscious, in this reading, is the housewife split again, because they (we) are defined in many ways by our sexuality, but mostly in the negative. We’re the end result of the romance plot, glimpsed in the sequel smiling beatifically with an armful of babies, but never really considered again in depth.
I will say, overshare be damned, that sexual life post-marriage, post-children, is an endlessly complicated set of negotiations – not simply between the couple – what you want and how you want it – but also a negotiation with our aging bodies, the demands of the family schedule, the logistics of having sex in a house with children whom you don’t want to freak out too bad. I can understand the desire to return to origins and perfect them, or replay them, or reimagine them, or whatever. All the ridiculous (and frankly boring) consideration of the sexual contract between Ana and Christian may may not have the content of a boring married couple’s, but the contract is an unspoken component of boring married life, and as such, I can see why it appeals to so many of us smug marrieds. The funnest part of the book, as many have noted, are the emails flirting and teasing between Ana and Christian – “You hang up.” “No, you.” Silence. “Are you still there?” – which are on one hand emblematic of hazy courtship, but on the other mirror my day-to-day goofy texts and boring questions between my husband and me.
ceridwen: you got an extremely urgent ups envelope. Want if I should open it?
I bet it’s spam of some sort
ceridwen: AHHH111!!! POISONOUS SPIDERS1!!
NSP: I don’t think I’ve ordered anything recently
ceridwen: Actually, it’s spam.
NSP: I knew it
ceridwen: I was hoping for the spiders.
NSP: I could order spiders
ceridwen: Then I could be a superhero!
NSP: Bitten by radioactive spam
I have been laughing about this exchange with my man for two weeks, but then, I don’t really get out much which is exactly why 50 Shades works, if and when it works. But Ana’s a total psycho because she’s being used as proxy for too many freaking things, and there’s no freaking way that a character as thin as she can bear the strain.
Oh, did I say thin? How clumsy of me. This is one of those half-assed thoughts, but I was bolted up by all the anorexic ideation in this book. It’s there in Twilight, all this food-worry – though mostly it’s located in Edward and his “vegetarian” vampirism. But here, good lord, Ana is the poster girl for the pro-Ana movement – I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name. It’s part of the sexual contract that she be more”health-conscious” – down to the hours she will spend exercising. And after Christian has put all these restrictions on her food, she stops eating because of how “emotional” she is, which gets him to spend all this time pushing food on her. I can’t even unpack it, it’s so fucked up. If he’s her sexual body, and he both restricts her food and tries to get her to eat? What the fuck does that mean?
I see a lot of weirdness in romance novels about the categorization and criticism of various female body types – male too, actually, but as these writers aren’t men writing for a male audience, I’m assuming it doesn’t affect dudes the same way – but the way it works here seems particularly confused. I mean, the target audience is likely like me: carrying a few more pounds than I’d like, slightly wrecked from child-bearing, unable to carve out the time for the gym. In sum, not 22 (or 17) anymore. So, on the one hand, Christian feels like a bodily superego, the one that criticizes when we get to end of our weeks and order pizza, too tired for sex, almost too tired for the parenting bullshit that must come first. On the other, I want to wring Ana’s fucking neck for all of her “too stressed out to eat” bullshit. That was probably a non sequitur, but whatever. I think what makes me irritated is that I know what anorexia looks like; I know how it thinks. (Caveat: I’m not an anorexic, but it’s gotten too close for comfort with too many people I love.) And while Ana’s thought processes hit that anorexic mindset with a flaming arrow, the whole thing was wrapped up in this breezily clueless “look at how cute and deep I am for forgetting to eat” thing that makes my head explode. No anorexic forgets to eat. She might tell people that’s what happened, but that’s not what happened. First person narrator fail.
And in these same lines, alcohol use/abuse also factors pretty strongly, as Ana is supposedly not a seasoned drinker, but gets blotto on at least one loud occasion – one that uses the Jacob character totally shabbily, I might add, but then, borderline-racist use of non-white characters is a Twilight mainstay, so it’s okay, don’t worry – and pours it down as liquid courage in several others. Just, what the hell is going on here? I don’t even have any conclusions to draw, I just want to point it out, this fluttering, strange disavowal of sensation by Ana – I never drink! Or think about sex! Or food! – and then the constant reality of the exact opposite – mediated by not one, but two! psychological others in this book. It dizzies. Maybe this is just the constant thrum in this book where we are obviously meant to take Ana at face value – the first person; the bald straightforward sequence of events – but over and over, she’s damaged as a narrator, unbelievable as a character – too many people in her mix – author proxy, reader proxy, Bella Swann, sexual tabula rasa, everygirl, inner goddess, subconscious, virgin, whore. That’s probably why this novel is both as successful and as derided as it is: Ana is incoherent as a woman, and that incoherence mirrors a basic facet of trying to live up the impossible, conflicted expectations put upon our gender. (Which is not to say dudes don’t have a set of fucked up expectations put on them too or anything, but, and I’m paraphrasing myself here, things are about what they are about, not about other things. This isn’t about a male sexual experience, except as a female fantasy, and it is not being read by nor was it written by a man. Men can go elsewhere for their incoherent gender standards – oh, hai, Western Canon.)
Some Shit about BDSM
Anyway, on to Christian. Christian is all BDSM all the time. So much that, like Ana’s claim never to have had a sexual thought, he claims never to have had vanilla sex. Which, snort. I’m not bagging on kink when I say that sometimes, after a decade or more of sexual activity, you’re just not going to be up to busting out the swing every single time you have sex. There’s gonna be that time when you just do it, because sex is an important, but also a sometimes a mechanical part of a long term relationship. I mean, no one said that the sex in Romances, or romance novels, or whatever, had to hew to reality, but just, come the fuck on. All that aside, Christian is absolutely forthright and honest about his kinks – kinks which, as they play out on the page are not much more than the mildest of bondage play. Ana regularly and compulsively, possibly even willfully misinterprets his actions and statements, but again and again, what he says is what he means. Christian is incredibly forthright, and, even though we’re supposed to be rooting for Ana – that’s what the first person means here; root for me – I found it very difficult to side with her at any point, especially in the final “plot twist”.
Which is not to say that Christian isn’t a total abuser, which is what makes my antipathy for Ana kind of hard to deal with. Because Ana is absolutely a terrible person — she shits on her friends, she treats her family like crap, she hates literally everything in the world — but she also doesn’t deserve the abuse he doles out. The sex scene in her dorm room, when he comes in the window like a total creeper, feels just awful, Ana gritting her teeth through a debasement she doesn’t want. Orgasms aren’t consent; they’re just orgasms. He leaves her crying, bereft, which in my half-assed googling about BDSM makes him the worst dom ever. Whither your aftercare, asshole?
I’m nervous as shit about how this might play out in later books – I get the sincere impression that Ana’s irrational ideas about the sources of Christian’s kinks will be given credit – like she’ll cure him of his fucking abuse and kinks and they’ll ride off into the sunset of missionary style sex with the lights off. That’s the Romantic narrative, right? That true love can transmute the Beast into the God-husband, which is an okay, if silly thing to think about vegetarian vampires, because it’s not like they exist anyway. However, stories about “curing” deeply ingrained sexual proclivities through the power of love and magical ladyparts just smacks of reprogramming camps for gays. Is this a Godwin? Maybe. But the way Ana constantly conceptualizes Christian’s kinks as born in trauma, as a psychological knot to be cut, this makes me nervous. Even if his kinks were born in trauma, pretending like some Magic Vagina is going to untwist this wire between fear and sexual response for an individual is not just naïve, but narcissistic. A person is never a cure. I don’t even like that I’ve written that sentence that way, and I want to go back and throw a ton of conditionals on everything I’ve written, but whatever.
And if I go back and change the word “kink” for “abuse” in the last paragraph, it all gets a lot worse. Stories about about curing cruelty and possessiveness through the power of love make me nervous. The way Ana constantly excuses Christian’s abuse as born as his own trauma — which may be, strictly speaking, accurate — doesn’t make the abuse go away. She will never be able to love him enough, fuck him enough, or behave in just the exact right way to keep him from hitting her. To keep him from setting the terms to absolutely everything.
So, how the fuck long have been going on about this book? Too godamn long, that’s for sure. Hi. How are you? I’m feeling a little fatigued, but there are still a couple of things I wanted to touch on about this book. And what I want to talk about is tampons. I’m not putting this discussion under the spoiler tag, even though this takes place well into the book, because I’m not sure this “narrative” can be spoiled. So, fair warning, the spoiler averse – maybe my discussion of a discrete sexual encounter will ruin this book for you. (Lol, as the kids say.) (But also, seriously, spoilers on the ending in two paragraphs.)
Late in the book, Ana has a bunch of hand-wringing and Oedipal (Electral?) bullshit with her mom, which ends in a hotel room working out the final stages of her contract with Christian. So far, all the sex scenes have been pretty clean, in the sense that, even while there have been mild bondage aspects, everyone is beautiful, orgasms are simultaneous, and that even virgins can blow like Debbie doing Dallas. Not to be crude – too late! – but even though I said the prose wasn’t euphemistic, there’s a big freaking lacuna in the way a sexual neophyte deals with the sticky aftermath of…well, you know, spit or swallow? Also, how did she not drown giving that one blowie? Which, fine, this is not a frank sexual text. But in this later scene, intercut with some actually honest-sounding dialogue between Ana and Christian, he pulls out her tampon and then fucks her. In the aftermath, she looks at him, at his body covered in her blood, at her thighs streaked with it, and it strikes her as an image of nakedness. This is a moment of sexual, personal rawness, and the physical and the mental are both bloody with it.
Which, fuck yeah. Yes, this is absolutely a squeamish image. This is a little gross, or a lot, depending on how you feel about menses and all that. But taking you and your hang-ups out of it, this is an absolutely vivid character moment. This is something a character does and thinks – and absolutely astonishing to find in a romance novel, dealing as it often does with sexual encounters idealized or gauzy. This is both shudder-able, and shrug-able. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to live in tents during our uncleanness, and it should be no big shock that someone, somewhere, had sex on the rag. But that’s not even my point – my point is we have this moment where Ana and Christian are doing something both so usual, and so transgressive to say out loud, that it makes them momentarily look like people.
And then, my friends, it all goes to shit. I don’t even have this book anymore, which is why I can’t go back and figure what happens exactly, but once past this sanguine Rubicon of period sex and emotional nakedness, Ana goes completely fucking bonkers and ends their relationship? Honest to Christ, I have no idea what happens, but the book ends with her weeping about some damn thing and moving out, or something. The ending is where the fan-fic-y-ness is totally obvious, because this is just a quick, bullshit slipknot to tie the threads until Eclipse the next book, which will keep confounding these idiots in their quest for hetero sexual perfection using vampirism BDSM culture as a metaphor for heaven knows what. Which, fuck you. The stakes are way too godamn low for me to continue, even if I want to get to the Christmas scene I read in 50 Shades of Fuck All standing in a bookstore well before I read this. Kiss kiss! Look at our perfect babies! Arrggghhhhhh.
I feel like I should come up with a coda on this review, but I’m not sure I have it in me. I feel like punching this book, and giving it a wedgie, and speaking softly to it, not to scare it, while feeding it formative feminist texts. I want this book to love itself more that it does. I want it to be less half-assed. I want us, by which I mean women, I think, but then maybe I mean everyone, to sit down and examine our kinks, and own those fuckers, and not have to get off to stupid fucking virgin-proxies who have embodied proxies themselves. I get why we’re doing it, but it would be sweet as fuck if we could all just move on.