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Fifty Shades of Grey

Jo Ind

E L James
Arrow, 528pp

Fifty Shades of Grey, the first in a trilogy of erotic novels by the British writer E L James, makes no claims to be great literature - and it isn't - nor does it set out to comment on the ethics or politics of our day. It's chick-lit. It's mummy-porn. So why is it being reviewed in Third Way?

Because it's the fastest selling e-book and paperback of all time. More than 4 million paperbacks have been sold in the UK since April and the series has sold more than 31 million copies worldwide.

What's more these sales have been achieved without the benefit of a famous author or massive publicity-budget. This easy-read novel about sadomasochistic sex has evolved from online downloadable to print-on-demand paperback to bestseller simply because, it seems, women like it.
Whatever it's got, it's what women want. So what's it got?

The plot centres on Anastasia Steele, a 22-year-old college graduate who falls in love (to use a convenient shorthand) with Christian Grey, an enigmatic 27-year-old billionaire who likes to control. So far, so Mills and Boon.

To be honest, if I hadn't been reviewing the book, I wouldn't have made it past the first five chapters. The characters, especially Christian, were painted so thinly they were barely there. How had this ludicrously young billionaire made his money? Why had this bright, attractive, sociable 22-year-old barely kissed a man? Would a famous entrepreneur really invite a woman out for a coffee and hold her hand as he walked down the street?

I couldn't believe in these people, especially Christian, and consequently didn't care enough about them to carry on reading.

But about a third of the way through the book, its central theme emerged - and then I found myself turning the pages through intrigue rather than public spiritedness. Ana is a virgin who studies Thomas Hardy and is looking for romance. Christian doesn't do girlfriends, has never had his sex 'vanilla' and is into sadomasochism. Can they find a way of making it work for each other despite their seemingly incompatible sexualities?

And so the sex scenes begin. They are detailed. They are fantasy - and they are germaine to the plot.

Each time they have sex it is different and not just because sometimes it's in the playroom and another time it's in the boathouse. The scenes are different because the dynamics change as the relationship develops and as they try to find a way of doing it that they can both enjoy.

There are two over-the-knee spankings, for example, but they are very different from each other. It's interesting to notice what it is that means Ana feels confused and sobs after one but wriggles on his lap wanting more from the other. Yes, this is fantasy but what happens in sex and how it makes Ana feel once the sex is over is very nicely observed.

It seems the women who gave the novel four or five star reviews on Amazon fall into two kinds - those who already read erotica and those who don't.
Those women who already read erotica appreciated Fifty Shades of Grey because it had more depth and story than they had previously found within the genre. Those who didn't read erotica got into it for the story and then had an 'oo er' moment when it got a bit racy - but they certainly weren't complaining.
(I particularly enjoyed the review of Mrs A M Williams from Surrey who only realised how much sex there was in it after she had picked it for her book club.)
What  EL James has achieved is a novel that integrates sex scenes with character development and a good story. In so doing she has broken through genres and created erotica that resonates more with women's sexualities than what had gone before.

There is something else too: despite being young and naive Ana does very well indeed.To some extent she is on a journey that we all have to make. No, most of us don't come across a devastatingly handsome billionaire who wants us to sign a contract to be a submissive to his dominant, but we do have to decide how much to explore sexually, when to take risks, how much we are prepared to compromise and how far we are prepared to go.

Ana is not an abused woman. She never strays too far from her own integrity. Christian loves and admires her because she is willing to try - and so do I - but when she tries something that makes her cry or feel angry she learns from it, communicates it and refines what she is prepared to do.

For his part, Christian, who is written up as being totally screwed up, is in fact unusually accessible, caring and emotional articulate. And he uses a condom.
The novel left me with a surprising sense of wellbeing, which on reflection was to do with being alongside a woman who was making such a good job of dancing on that line between consent and compromise, holding onto herself and letting go.

I have long held that the church is so busy teaching 'no sex before marriage' that it isn't equipping people with the skills they need to do the communicating and negotiating necessary to enable good sex to happen.

Fifty Shades of Grey offers us a rare glimpse into what it looks like when a couple are doing that well. I wonder if the bedrooms of 4 million UK women are happier as a consequence. I hope so. 

Jo Ind

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