Bad Reputation Book Club: Fifty Shades of Grey

This review of Fifty Shades of Grey marks the first of Autumn James Haworth’s Bad Reputation Book Club series. In this series, Autumn reviews books that have been critically panned and discusses whether or not these reputations are deserved.

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’ve always been fascinated by bad books that become popular. I wonder how they get to be so popular with their reputation. Despite the inevitable stress, I’m endeavouring to look into a variety of books with bad reputations to see if they deserve it. Welcome to the Bad Reputation Book Club.

Today, I’m discussing Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. I’ll be breaking down the plot and reviewing as I go. Spoilers ahead, and content warnings are as follows:

  • Sexual content
  • Sexual assault
  • Dubious consent
  • Control of food intake
  • Domestic abuse

Female lead Anastasia Steele is asked by her sick flatmate Kate to fill in for an interview for the student paper. The interview is with Christian Grey, a young entrepreneur.

Ana notes that Christian’s office is staffed entirely by blonde women who she refers to as the ‘Stepford blondes’. Reading this raises many questions about Christian because it just feels so shady.

When she steps into Christian’s office, she stumbles over herself, falling to the floor. Rather than the older man she expected, Ana is confronted with a young and beautiful man. Though she isn’t aware of it, her instant attraction is reciprocated.

There’s a fair amount to unpack with this scene. When she first meets him, she uses the phrase ‘if this guy’s over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.’ Not to nitpick right away, but how many twenty-one-year-olds actually use the phrase ‘monkey’s uncle’? I say this as someone who’s only a year older than Ana, and can’t say I’ve ever used or heard my friends use this phrase. I’m not going into this to be all negative though, I actually liked the little fluttery moment when they shook hands. That was sweet, and exactly what you want from a meet cute.

Though the interview itself had problems, the tension between the two was genuinely enjoyable. The ‘he’s teasing me? I hope’ is a wonderful little bit. That was fun, but I don’t think it’s enough to carry the scene. The interview questions are dull, and when she asks him if he’s gay, I felt the cringe in my bones. So, when an assistant comes in to say that Grey has a meeting soon and he tells her to cancel it to spend more time with Ana, it doesn’t feel earned. The dull interview cancels out any of the tension that might have been built with the flirty moments.

Though Ana thinks the interview was a flop, she’s surprised by Grey at the hardware store where she works. She remains oblivious to his flirting and the fact that what he’s buying isn’t necessarily for decorating. I found Ana’s complete lack of awareness in this moment funny, and I mean that as a compliment; it’s meant to be funny. It’s one of few moments where her innocence doesn’t feel like the virgin worship that’s all too prevalent in this genre. This moment is instantly ruined when Ana blushes because E.L. James opted to write, ‘I feel the colour in my cheeks rising. I must be the colour of the communist manifesto.’ I just want to know why. It’s a common problem with E.L. James though, descriptions are often either too lengthy or just unnecessary. Earlier in this scene, Grey’s voice is described as ‘warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.’ I think the high page count is mostly due to pointless descriptions.

It was here I started to notice the way James employs speech tags. Ask yourself this, how often do you:

  • Squeak
  • Whisper
  • Breathe (as in say your words through a breath)
  • Murmur

Because if you’re in an E.L. James novel, that’s basically all you do. The murmuring is the worst, but this is a common trope in bad romance, especially fan fiction.

Ana asks Christian to do a photoshoot for Kate’s article, and at this shoot Grey asks Ana to go for coffee with him. While this could have been answered with a quick yes or no, for some reason James decides to bugger about with who’s driving whom and how everyone else is getting home, adding nothing except word count.

This first date is okay if a bit short. As they step outside, Christian saves Ana from being hit by a bicycle. I suppose he’s not actually a vampire, so he can’t stop a car with his bare hands. Still, it is a bit naff. After this, Grey tells Ana that she should stay away from him, leaving her confused. Despite his warnings, she receives a package of expensive first edition books from Grey. That night, she goes out to celebrate finishing finals with Kate and their friend José.

She gets incredibly drunk, mostly due to José plying her with drinks. She drunk dials Christian who says he’ll come to get her. We’re just expected to ignore that he tracks her phone. When he arrives, José is trying to force a kiss on Ana. Christian stops him before things go too far. This scene is super uncomfortable and felt unnecessary. What’s worse is that Ana remains friends with José. I get it, you have to keep Jacob Black around to keep Team Jacob happy, but if you need to do that, don’t make him a sexual predator.

Ana wakes up in Grey’s room, assured that they haven’t had sex. He did, however, remove some of her clothes, so he’s hardly an upstanding citizen. This is also where we see the early signs of him trying to control Ana, especially what she eats. He’s got no excuses, he’s just being rancid.

It was here that I had to check with my fanfic loving friends what it means when sweatpants ‘hang, in that way’. Apparently, it’s either to bring attention to hip bones or his package, depending on context. It was useful to know because James exhausts that phrase.

The thing is, narratively speaking, it isn’t a bad thing if Christian is bad. He just never faces consequences for his actions. I hope that his character develops in later books, but I don’t hold out that much hope.

When they’re leaving in the elevator, they have their first kiss. It’s a good kiss where the tension builds well. It’s a little bit tropey, but that’s okay. You sort of expect some tropes in a book like this.

When Ana arrives home, we learn that Kate does not trust Grey, and this is just another red flag. Listen to your friends, especially those who see you every day. The Spice Girls had the right idea.

Next comes date two in Grey’s helicopter, Charlie Tango. He asks her to sign an NDA, but she wants to know why. So, once home, he shows her what a relationship with him would entail. This is a) where we see the playroom, and b) where we see the line ‘I don’t make love. I fuck… hard.’ I’m sure this was exciting for Ana, but it’s a bit cringe, isn’t it?

We learn that Grey wants a full-time sub/dom relationship and has a contract to go with it. The presence of the contract is awful. If nothing else, part of it is that he can have sex with her whenever he wants. While the contract cannot be legally binding, he’s still asking her to sign away her consent. Contracts are used, but they’re just a way to understand what everyone wants. I’m not kink-shaming, but I am Grey-shaming.

We learn that Ana is a virgin, and Grey loses it. This is a red flag, but given that he wants an intense relationship, this isn’t just a red flag, it’s an air-raid siren. When they sleep together for the first time, it isn’t like the first kiss; he’s doing this to ‘rectify’ her virginity like a creep.

The sex scene is fine. It didn’t make me want to tear out my internal organs like some of the others did. There was the line ‘his erection sprang free… holy cow’ which made me giggle. Also, there are no time jumps, and it can’t have lasted more than five minutes. Not exactly Lothario material from Chrissy-boy.

The next morning, they almost have sex, but are interrupted when Grey’s mother arrives. She’s surprised to find out he isn’t gay because he’s never been seen with a woman before. I’m not even commenting on this.

Later that day, Ana and Christian have a meal together and Ana learns of the woman that got Grey into BDSM, who she dubs ‘Mrs. Robinson’. He was fifteen, and says that she seduced him, but Ana is quick to see that it was abuse. We learn later in the book that he has a therapist, and the fact that the therapist hasn’t taught him that he was groomed is frankly just rough.

Over the next few days, Ana receives a MacBook and the full contract from Christian. There are back and forth flirty emails about this. Yes, emails. No instant messaging or texting. This book was published in 2011.

Ana realises her feelings for Grey. This all comes to a head when they meet at her graduation, where he’s a guest speaker. Here, Christian meets Ana’s stepfather; the two get on well.

There are two contract meetings, and there’s so much to unpack:

  • Grey’s previous partners are ‘established submissives’. I find this hard to believe given how rancid he is. They’d see right through him.
  • In the first meeting, he makes her go to a secluded spot. ‘No public’ as he puts it. This makes her way easier to control. It’s textbook abusive behaviour.
  • In the second meeting, he gets her drunk to make sure he gets what he wants. I don’t know why I’m supposed to like this guy.

After the second meeting, Grey spanks Ana. This leads to a later email where Ana tells Christian that she felt confused about being aroused by pain, which isn’t necessarily surprising. It’s the first time she’s done something like this. Christian, the ‘experienced dom’, blows her off because whatever redeeming qualities he starts the novel with, dwindle as it progresses. He even tells her that he’s ‘grateful for [her] inexperience’. Of course, he only does this because he can mould her to be exactly what he wants.

Kate and Ana move to a new Seattle apartment, and Ana receives a bottle of champagne and a balloon of Charlie Tango from Grey. The Sunday after the move, Ana heads to Escala, Christian’s place, so she can meet with a doctor about a course of contraception. Yes, this is because he doesn’t like wearing condoms, so he makes his girlfriend be the one to deal with contraception. Chrissy-boy, just stick something on the end of it, and get a grip.

The two of them head to dinner at Grey’s parents. Kate, who’s been seeing Christian’s brother Elliot, gets under Christian’s skin. It’s revealed that Ana wants to spend some time in Georgia, and she refuses to let Grey touch her up under the dinner table. The dinner table where all of his family are sat. Classy.

He drags her to the boathouse for punishment, and this scene is incredibly uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel consensual, even when she says yes. It’s like he whittled her down until that was her only possible answer. The punishment is bad enough, but the sex scene left me feeling awful. This bit isn’t funny bad, it’s just bad… bad.

On a lighter note, though they do argue once they’re home, after their morning makeup sex, we get this gem, ‘What the hell are you doing to me? […] You completely beguile me, Ana. You weave some powerful magic.’ It’s undiluted cringe.

We don’t see the first of Ana’s job interviews, but we do see her in a second for an internship at a publishing house, SIP, where we meet head of HR Elizabeth Morgan and Editor Jack Hyde. The interview seems to go well.

Ana heads to Georgia to spend some time with her mum, and to think about her relationship. At the airport, she finds out that Christian has upgraded the ticket to first class.

While there, she’s having drinks with her mum, and Grey shows up. He can’t even let her breathe for a few days. She told him that she was there to get space from him, and I don’t believe for one second that he just happened to have work there at the same time. More textbook abuse. He knows that if she spends time away from him, especially with her family, she might see sense and leave him. Wish she did.

They go up to his hotel room for possibly the worst scene I’ve ever read. They’re getting hot and heavy, and it turns out Ana’s on her period. Without asking, Chrissy-boy pulls out her tampon. I assume the appeal is that he’s comfortable around periods, but ask first. I think every part of my body clenched right up when he did that.

They go gliding to ‘chase the dawn’ as a date. This scene drags like hell and feels super unnecessary. I could go into more detail, but I’m not here to waste your time.

After this, they go to IHoP for breakfast, and she wants to treat him to the meal. He accuses her of trying to emasculate him because he needs to get a grip.

Christian is supposed to have dinner with Ana and her mum, but there’s something wrong with his business, and has to leave. Ana and her mum still have a dinner together, and Ana learns she got the job with SIP.

When Ana gets back to Seattle, she goes straight to Grey’s, and he’s in a state. They have a BDSM session to cheer him up. This scene irritates me, but not in the way that you’d think. The tension is good, there’s some sensuality, Grey shows signs of knowing how a dom should behave. This feels like a glimpse into what could have been.

After this, they agree not to sign the contract but agree to live under some of the rules of obedience and punishment. Ana then asks Christian how rough punishment gets. He whips her six times on the bare buttocks with a belt. She freaks out and tells him not to touch her. She leaves, telling him the relationship is over.

The final chapter is a great culmination of everything that comes before it. I enjoyed her going into the flat she’s spent so little time in and seeing the balloon deflated. I wish I could pretend there aren’t two more books, and that she just left this man forever.

This absolutely deserves its bad reputation. People say it’s ‘so bad it’s good’, but I’m not sure I agree. There are funny scenes, but I left this book feeling like the Charlie Tango balloon. There are too many scenes that are just deeply uncomfortable for me to agree with the trashy fun moniker.

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