The women’s book club has a new romantic heroine. By day, Anastasia Steele is a college senior at a Vancouver University and a virgin who wears indifferent jeans and reads the usual novels (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Pride and Prejudice). By night, she is the willing slave of Christian Grey, who trusses her up in his “red room of pain” and slaps her and makes her shiver with just the tip of his whip. You can tell by the characters’ names what general territory we are in: erotic fiction mixed with Harlequin and just a hint of legal brief (apparently bondage drama requires the exchange of elaborate documents and disclaimers).
Fifty Shades of Grey is the Kindle and Goodreads sensation that recently made the round of the morning talk shows and is apparently bewitching women from “the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Seattle,” says Today. Part of a “triple-X trilogy,” the book began as a Twilight fan-fiction story called “Master of the Universe” by someone who called herself “Snowqueens Icedragon” and has now revealed herself to be E.L. James, a TV executive, wife and mother of two in London.
Today convened a Boca Raton, Fla., reading group to discuss why they could not put the book down, and one of the women in it confessed that after working and taking care of the kids all day, “it’s nice for a man to take over in the bedroom.” Host Savannah Guthrie, who used to be the show’s legal correspondent, responded with a version of the mild horror the book has provoked on many a feminist blog: “Is that really where we’ve come to after 50 years, now that women have the power? … Do you think women really want to fantasize about someone causing them physical pain?”
Critics have been comparing Fifty Shades of Grey to the Story of O, the smutty 1954 French novel that titillated the Parisian literary scene, but the comparison is not quite right. The Story of O is a cold, hard read almost entirely devoid of humanity. On the first page, O is smuggled into a taxi, ordered to remove her bra and panties and handed over to a room of masked men. Within a few pages she is gang raped, not for the last time. The book is so brutal that even when, 50 years later, its author Dominique Aury revealed her identity, critics had trouble believing it was actually written by a woman. It’s far too brutal to titillate any Boca Raton housewife.
Fifty Shades employs a much slower seduction. For more than half of the novel, our very normal heroine tries to keep Christian, the kinky young billionaire, at arm’s length. They go on coffee dates and dancing at bars. (He is very young for a self-made billionaire. And devastatingly handsome. Eyes like, what else, “smoldering embers.”) She continues to lead her mundane co-ed life driving around in her old Beetle and applying for internships. He buys her a Mac Air, and they exchange lots of pithy e-mails. He spends the night in her bed and tells her he’s never done that before. When he finally shows her the red room of pain, there is no doubt that a woman crafted the gentle scene:
You can leave anytime. The helicopter is on stand-by to take you whenever you want to go; you can stay the night and go home in the morning. Its fine whatever you decide
And she responds with:
Just open the damn door, Christian
The particular genius of E.L. James is mixing the red room of whips and cable ties with the safer territory of emoticons and job applications and brotherly affirmations such as, “It’s fine.” The novel aims at the sweet spot between banal and outrageous that turns on not just the Boca Raton housewives but the Jane Austen fan-fiction junkies. Our heroine is not one of Fabio’s ravishing redheads or raven beauties. She says things like “Holy crap” and writes witty e-mails. She has never really been kissed, or even tempted, preferring to spend her evenings in the library. She is pale and “scruffy,” and so uncoordinated that when she first meets Christian she trips and falls onto the floor, much as Bridget Jones would. She is, in other words, all brain, and the point of her is to show that any woman can override her intellectual mind and give herself over to pure sensation.