It’s the trilogy that is enjoying as much hype as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although of course the genres couldn’t be more different from each other. The first Fifty Shades instalment was released less than a year ago, while the final volume – Fifty Shades Freed – was released two months ago in what must have been a record in terms of publishing time-frames for trilogies.
When the first two books were released, E.L. James’s work barely attracted any notice and certainly wasn’t placed on the mainstream shelves. This changed as soon as Fifty Shades Freed hit the shelves (complete with re-designed covers for the whole series) and now you can’t walk into a book-store – or log into a virtual library – without being assaulted by the rather sophisticated new design.
I have to admit that I approached the trilogy with a certain amount of scepticism. For starters, the story first saw the light of day as Twilight fan fiction. As the name itself suggests, the term is used when fans of a particular work create their own stories about the main characters.
The Fifty Shades protagonists – Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey – started life as Bella and Edward. James only decided to give them an independent identity when her writing became too risqué for the typical Twilight fan.
That was strike number one and it’s followed by so many strikes that really, I cannot find any justification for the trilogy’s incredible popularity (it exceeded Harry Potter in terms of sales). Although the plot wound up a secondary element thanks to other, steamier parts, I have to start off with it. After all, we do have a word for works that are all sex and no plot – and no, it’s not literature.
The story revolves around a rather naive young woman, Anastasia, who falls for a wealthy tycoon with an unusual hobby; Christian loves dominating women, both in the bedroom and out. The whole scenario leads to chapters upon chapters of agonising about whether she can actually ‘do this’ (while doing it very happily) and whether he does love her or is just using her.
From a feminist perspective it’s all very irritating, of course – the heroine is not allowed to wear skimpy clothing or even to go out for cocktails with her friends, for instance – but the prose is so badly written and the scenario so unreal that you can’t really take it seriously.
To be fair, James does attempt to bring in a number of sub-plots in volumes two and three. Once it’s established that the two love-doves will live and procreate happily ever, James must have realised that she needed some kind of story-line, no matter how flimsy. How else to fill the couple of pages in between long-winded (and very samey) accounts of our heroes doing the dirty in bed, on the kitchen table, on the floor…you get the picture.
So what we get in Fifty Shades Freed is a very weak subplot that reads like a B-grade thriller, with Christian’s ex putting spokes in the wheels of matrimonial bliss and a series of attacks being made on his nearest and dearest by a mystery man. James tries her best to instil a sense of Ruth Rendell-like sleuthing. Unfortunately for her it doesn’t quite work out as both the identity of the culprit and his motivation are painfully obvious from the get-go.
That’s the plot, destroyed in under 400 words – which leaves us with the sex, which is plentiful and extremely repetitive. The trilogy is not for the squeamish and is quite explicit. However, this isn’t the problem – readers know what they’re going in for, after all. The problem is that James’ vocabulary and her imagination are both extremely limited.
This is coming from someone who has read other – better – works that are intended for an adult audience but that are actually written by bona fide writers. John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (or Fanny Hill), Anne Desclos’s The Story O, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy… These all have sex, in its various permutations, as their central theme. However, they also have exquisite prose and genuine plots to support it.
The latter two works were both written under pseudonyms, which just goes to show that no matter how established and respected an author you are, penning an adult story is not something to be taken lightly.
To conclude, after the initial furore about Fifty Shades dies down, I doubt anyone will remember who E.L. James is. Sex might get you the limelight for your first work, but the ‘novelty’ wears off very fast.
In case I haven’t made this amply clear: if you do decide to go for it, the books require a mature audience.
An edited version of this review was published on The Sunday Times.