Bad Reputation Book Club: Fifty Shades Darker

Bad Reputation Book Club is a monthly book review series where Autumn James Haworth looks at books that have been critically panned and discusses whether or not these reputations are deserved. This month, he’s taking a look at the kinky sequel Fifty Shades Darker.

Autumn James Haworth is a bi and trans author from the north of England. He likes to write short stories and poetry all about mental health, growing up and falling in love.

I’m bringing in the new year with our first sequel! Welcome back to Bad Reputation Book Club, where we’ll be looking at E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Darker. Does it manage to break the mould of book one, or does it deserve its bad reputation?

Content Warnings:

  • Sexual assault
  • Food intake control
  • Sexual content
  • Dubious consent
  • Self-harm
  • Gun violence
  • Child abuse

The prologue is an extended flashback to Christian’s troubled childhood. I can only assume this is James trying to make me feel empathy for Christian. However, while it’s sad he had a rough upbringing, bad childhood is no excuse for being the type of adult he is.

Chapter One opens with Ana ending her first work day, talking to her new boss, Jack Hyde. I wonder if there’s anything going on with Jack Hyde. I wonder if there’s something monstrous beneath the surface of Jack Hyde. I wonder if there’s a whole separate side to Jack Hyde.

We get a “murmur” on the first page of chapter one. My PDF is 373 pages — there are 278 occurrences of “murmur” in all forms (i.e., “murmur”, “murmuring”). Ma’am, you have an editor; get her to sort out your crutch words. Also, it goes without saying that nobody murmurs and mumbles this much.

She gets back to her apartment, and she’s been left a delivery from Christian. She’s heartbroken about the whole thing which is laughable given that I don’t think they were together for much more than a week or two. Also, it did not go unnoticed that Christian is refusing to leave Ana alone; it’s a running theme that he has no respect for her boundaries, but I’m supposed to think he’s just so in love that he can’t let her go.

After a few days of wallowing in self-pity, Ana gets an email from Grey asking if she needs a lift to José’s photography show. There are a few things to unpack:

1. Why’s she still friends with José?

2. What was I saying about boundaries?

3. Abusers will do anything they can to remain in your life, making themselves necessary.

While at work, Hyde is a creep, but in the same way that Grey was at first. I guess it’s okay if he’s a sexy billionaire (yes, that’s a joke).

As soon as Grey sees Ana, he berates her for not eating and losing weight. It’s only been five days— I doubt she’s got so thin it’s noticeable. Even if she has lost weight, what business is it of Christian’s? Oh, that’s right, none. As soon as he showed up in person, I wanted to throttle this man.

While they’re being driven to the exhibition, Grey pulls Ana onto his lap like they’re still an item. This is one of the reasons “dubious consent” is in the content warnings. While Ana shows interest once she’s on his lap, they aren’t together anymore. Spontaneity like this is something to be wary of.

When they get there, everything seems normal until they walk into a room where there’s a whole bunch of candid shots of Ana…

1. That’s grade-A creep territory.

2. Is that even legal?

Just to top it off, the main creep, I mean romantic lead, Christian, buys every picture of Ana just to make sure nobody else can look at her.

They go to dinner together to discuss their future. They’ve missed each other, but Ana can’t go back to the type of relationship Grey wanted before. He says that, given how strong his feelings are, he’s willing to leave the BDSM relationship behind for a vanilla relationship. For once, there’s somewhat of a reasonable discussion of boundaries and feelings.

Once home, Ana opens a gift from Grey. “Holy shit…an iPad.” I don’t understand why she went so crazy for this gift. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a small gift, but she’s given a car later and acts like it’s nothing.

As Ana leaves to go out with colleagues, she bumps into a strange woman with bloodied bandages on her wrists who looks like her. She somehow knows Ana’s name and asks her “what do you have that I don’t?” Ana is left stunned as the woman walks away.

While out for drinks, Hyde continues to be a creep. When Christian arrives there’s some stupid macho “I’m the boyfriend” “I’m the boss” thing. Meanwhile, Ana is unaware of it all. Almost as soon as Grey arrives, he takes Ana away. On the way to Ana’s apartment, his possessiveness is at an all-time high when he reveals he’s bought SIP, the publishing company Ana works for. I’m not being cynical; he bought it because he thinks it’ll keep her safe. This is despite him telling her he wouldn’t interfere with her career. They argue briefly about it but get over it by the time they’re at her apartment.

When she’s prepping food, Christian offers to help, and he can’t chop vegetables. Even if I’d put up with everything else, he’d be so far out the door if I found out he couldn’t cut carrots.

Despite having just been preparing food on the counter, the two of them get together in the kitchen. While I’m aware that it’s meant to be passionate, I could only think about the fact that Ana had been prepping chicken. It’s going to be a salmonella-fest.

Once finished, there’s a moment where he says “Come cook me some food, wench” which might have been funny in another book. Here, it feels out of place because they haven’t developed that kind of playful relationship.

They have the food they were prepping before and have ice cream for “dessert”. I know that people use food in the bedroom; you do you. There are just certain places that food shouldn’t go, lest you get a yeast infection. Reading this was just like the tampon scene from book one— deeply unpleasant.

The next morning, Ana wakes from a nightmare about the girl from outside SIP. She explains this to Christian, who tells her that it must have been Leila, an ex-sub of his that wanted more.

Post-breakfast, Christian takes Ana to get a haircut. He takes her to a “Esclava” (which means “slave” in Spanish – not exactly subtle). It’s run by Elena, who Ana dubbed Mrs. Robinson. She’s the adult woman who got 15-year-old Christian into BDSM. Quite rightly, Ana is outraged when she figures this out. Ana tries to be assertive but is bulldozed by Christian who isn’t able to see what the problem is. While this could be interesting, what with Christian never being able to read the room, it doesn’t work because it should serve as a place of growth for him (if James wants it to be clear that he’s becoming a more likeable person). He even picks her up in the street in a way that doesn’t feel playful.

There’s an argument about how often Christian invaded Ana’s privacy, especially just after their initial meeting. I don’t want to feel like I’m going around in circles, but needless to say nothing comes of his stalker behaviour because he’s:

  • Handsome
  • Rich
  • Ana’s boyfriend

After a chat, Grey hands Ana a tube of lipstick to mark out his “no-touch zones”. It’s part of his getting over trauma. Although the “love fixes him” trope is unhealthy, him learning to trust someone on a one-on-one basis does work here.

There’s this motif where Ana thinks a question and somehow Christian’s able to answer. My instinct was that this was Twilight fanfic at first, but Edward can’t even read Bella’s mind. It was fine to see the phrase “answering my unspoken question” once or twice, but it got tiring pretty quickly.

They go to a masquerade charity ball, hosted by the Greys. They see Mia, Christian’s sister, straightaway. She’s with a group of friends. Due to Christian being just so dreamy to every woman around (sarcasm), one of Mia’s friends stares daggers at Ana because she got what this friend couldn’t. This is a running theme throughout, and it never makes sense (well, besides the masses of money).

During the charity auction, Ana bids the money Christian gave her for her old car on a weekend at Christian’s aspen residence. I think it’s to show Ana becoming more comfortable with having wealth, and it’s not a bad way to show it.

There’s another auction for the first dance with various women, Ana included. There’s a bidding war for her with Christian and a man whom he clearly knows. Before they have that dance, Christian takes Ana to his childhood bedroom where they get together. It’s one of the few times where Christian finishing in a matter of moments is useful, because they can’t be gone too long else people start asking after them.

After their first dance, Ana meets the other bidder — Dr Flynn, Grey’s therapist. Nothing like impartiality and professionalism. That’s a theme for his character; we’ll touch on that more later.

After they dance, Ana heads to the powder room, bumping into Elena on the way. Elena tries to have a go at Ana, saying that she’s never seen Christian so happy, but Ana could never give him what he really needs. It was good to see Ana get a backbone and stand up to this woman, calling her exactly what she is, a child molester.

There’s a firework display, after which they head home. Once at Escala, they discover Leila got in and caused serious damage to Ana’s car. After a search of the house, they find that it’s safe for everyone to head inside.

During the night, Ana sees someone at the bottom of her bed but chalks it up to tiredness. She goes to see Christian, and it seems like one thing will lead to another. He asks if Ana opened the balcony door, and she says no and explains what happened. They get his security to book them into a hotel until they know they’re safe.

The next day, Dr Greene comes to the hotel to berate Ana about not taking her contraceptive pill. She makes her take a pregnancy test and tells her she’s getting a regular shot rather than the pill. This is all because Grey doesn’t like wearing condoms.

Later, Christian takes her to buy a car. He is controlling but is being somewhat more lenient. It’s a sign that James can give her characters growth, but these are minor compromises.

He takes her onto his boat after dinner. I think this was a) an excuse to show off Christian’s wealth, and b) because James thought it would be fun if they had intercourse on a boat.

They’re allowed back at Escala, as there’s no sign of Leila. There’s an argument about whether Ana can go to work, and he eventually concedes that she can. It becomes another example of Christian chiding Ana about something that he can do, but when she disobeys, it proves that he was right all along.

They make their way to a room with a pool table. This scene is incredibly drawn-out. There are raunchy bets that eventually turn explicit. This scene could easily work. It has all the right ingredients, but just goes on for too long.

When Ana goes into work the next day, Hyde invites her to conference in New York. This is one of those things where the serial nature of this book rears its ugly head. It arrives and is resolved so fast it feels like it doesn’t matter. This comes from James publishing kind of one-shots that fit mostly into the wider story.

It’s clear that Christian interfered so she can’t go to the conference, but missing the trip means Ana has to stay late to do paperwork. Hyde is a creep again, and she heads out the door as soon as she’s able.

Hyde is in a fowl mood the next day and Ana can’t figure out why. Also, during this workday, Ethan (Kate’s brother) is picking up keys so he can stay in the apartment for a few days. It’s another none-plot just to add drama for when Ana gets back to her flat after work. When she arrives, it isn’t Ethan there but rather Leila, and she’s got a gun. She’s threatening Ana entirely because she wanted more from Christian and that’s what Ana has. Leila speaks in short, broken sentences, and it’s really distracting. This might have been a really tense scene if the woman didn’t speak like Dobby.

Christian saves the day by using his dominant superpowers. He tells Ana to go to Escala, but she goes for drinks with Ethan across the road, and who can blame her? If you answered, “Christian”, then you win a prize. That prize is my condolences. When she gets to Escala, he goes on a rampage leading to another argument.

During this, he ends up on his knees in the submissive position. This leads to a series of revelations that mean Ana’s allowed to touch him. He also proposes to her; Ana says she’ll think about it.

I’m confronted with a scene that could’ve been effective if I cared about the characters. It’s a breakthrough moment for Christian (and their relationship), even if it does fall into the “romance fixing trauma” trope. There’s nothing wrong with a romantic partner being present at a breakthrough moment, so long as it’s not implicit that they’re the only reason for the breakthrough. Even the (kind of funny) revelation that Christian isn’t a dominant, but instead a sadist who finds women that look like his mum, works in context. Not only is he being honest with his feelings, but he’s also trying to admit that he’s trying to move on from something that he thinks he needs. The issue is that the book still has about 140 pages left.

The next day, Hyde is still in a mood, and spends the day berating Ana for everything she does (sound familiar?). It builds until, at the end of the day, he corners her and tries to force himself on her. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s a well written scene. It didn’t come out of nowhere, and while I generally don’t think assault scenes are necessary, it makes sense in context. She knees him in the groin, and I just wish that the scene didn’t wrap with her making a quippy comment. It cheapened it a little.

Rather than consoling her, Christian yells at Ana before heading inside to deal with Jack.

On the way to work the next day, Grey digs at Ana about her driving (amongst other things) ignoring the fact that she’s been driving for years without issue.

Though she thinks she’ll get fired, she actually gets a temporary promotion to Hyde’s position. They tell her it’s because she knows his work and clients. However, I can’t help but feel her very rich boyfriend who just so happens to own the company might have had something to do with it.

After work, Grey takes Ana to properly meet Dr Flynn. She gets to talk to him one-on-one, and the scene can be summed up with this quote:

“Ana, in the very limited time that you’ve known him, you’ve made more progress with my patient than I have in the last two years. You have had a profound effect on him.”

Let’s not have a doctor say that he’s “fixed” thanks to a romantic relationship.

Afterwards, Grey takes Ana to a house he’s thinking of buying for the two of them, but once again this doesn’t seem to amount to much. From what I know though, this does make a reappearance in the next book.

Once she’s finished at work the next day, she meets with José, Ethan, and Kate (who has just got back from a vacation). She’s tried once or twice to get hold of Christian, which I’ll admit that I didn’t spot in my first read, but these couple of texts/calls don’t make up for the disaster pacing work that comes up next. I’m using bullet points to convey just how fast we go through this because James will spend chapters on nothing, but speed through this within about fifteen pages.

  • Elliott tells Ana that Christian hasn’t made it home.
  • Friends and family immediately gather at Escala.
  • Christian arrives looking dishevelled.
  • It turns out he’s been in a helicopter crash but it’s okay.

From this moment onwards, I just kept going “how do I have [x] pages left? What else can even happen?”. There are a lot of notes complaining about tension headaches and wanting to go to bed at this point forward too.

At midnight, as it’s Christian’s birthday. He opens his gift from Ana; it’s a keyring that says “yes”, so they’re engaged.

The next evening, she gives him another gift which is a trip to the playroom. For once James has given her characters some growth. This is something both of them want. It doesn’t feel like Grey is trying to harm her, and Ana is having fun. Funny how consent makes an erotic scene work so much better.

He has a birthday party with his family that night. There’s a pointless bit of drama with Kate that’s dealt with in just a couple of pages. Also, Grey takes Ana to the boathouse to do this big proper proposal surrounded by flowers and fairy lights. It’s kind of cute, and I’m sure you’d like it if you actually care about these characters.

The book ends with a move away from Ana’s POV, looking in on a dishevelled man smoking, drinking, and cursing Christian. It’s not said, but it’s pretty obvious it’s Jack Hyde.

If it isn’t perfectly clear, this book absolutely deserves its reputation. It’s as infuriating as the first, if not worse, and the pacing is absolutely appalling. I’m sure I’ll have to round out this trilogy in the future, and I do not look forward to it.

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