As porn books go, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is limp. It has too much soppy emotion and the porn bits are mediocre and tediously repetitive. At best it can be called a Mills & Boon pretending to be porn. Yet the trilogy which includes Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed is gripping.
From the moment Anastasia Steel a literature student walks into tycoon Christian Grey’s office you are hooked. When he tells her to sign a contract which will make her his ‘submissive’ sexual partner, you think this is going to be about deviant sexual behaviour and some really hot sex.
It isn’t. But you continue to read through bad prose and some terrible English. You cannot give up even when it is evident that this is a treacly sweet, politically correct love story that will end in babies and marriage. Everything has been picked from popular opinions — the hero’s penchant for feeding the world’s poor, the heroine’s love for English breakfast tea. In fact Steele, the protagonist comes across as someone with an extremely low sense of self-worth and somewhat stupid. The book has not been critically acclaimed in any of the reviews I came across though it was being called a ‘page turner.’
But, with all its shortcomings and the accompanying criticism the book, released last year, has already done 40 million copies in 37 countries, more than the Harry Potter series. Why does Fifty Shades of Grey work?
My guess? It works for the same reason that Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) or Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman, the 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere hit, worked. It is a love story where rich meets poor, strength meets weakness and a fairy tale happens. Rebecca is about a frightened second wife who discovers by degrees that her rich husband is not mourning for his first wife (Rebecca). That he actually hated her. It is the second one he really loves. Of course it takes many pages and several episodes of inscrutable behaviour for this to come out. Ditto for Pretty Woman, where a hooker teaches a millionaire what it takes to face his worst fears and to live by his strengths. She does this while being his escort for a few days at one of the best hotels in Los Angeles. It is a fairy tale life for her and a lesson in life for him. Eventually he falls in love and gets her out of the ghetto she lives in.
Fifty Shades of Grey gives one the same sigh-inducing satisfaction. Of a love story that starts off traumatically before we discover that the rich hero is actually an abused child with issues of self-worth. And that the woman is actually helping him deal with it. So every time Grey allows Steele to touch him, a no-no to start with, you know she is winning small battles. The BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) bit is just an appendage to the story. It really doesn’t have much to do with their falling in love.
This is a fairy tale where a shy, bookish, attractive young woman meets a handsome, control-freak of a business tycoon. They fall in love. He takes her out for a date in his helicopter, on his boat. He flies over 3,000 miles in his private jet to meet her when she goes to her parent’s home. He woos her with all the fun things that his wealth allows him to shower on her — cars, phones, computers, house help, fun rides, a great honeymoon and lots of attention. It is every woman’s fairy tale.
Unlike Rebecca or Pretty Woman, this is set in current times so the accessories are prominently mentioned — the Blackberry, the iPad, iPod, the Audi, the Saab and so on. James clearly has a thing for the big brands. But at the end of the day Fifty Shades gives you that warm, tingly feeling that comes from seeing or reading that something good has happened — like two young people falling in love.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik