By E.L. James
Arrow Books Paperback/576 pages/$17.95/ Major bookstores/**
Many things disturb me about E.L. James' best-selling raunchy series and this fourth and latest instalment Grey, a retelling of book one from the male protagonist's point of view, makes me even more uncomfortable.
As in Fifty Shades Of Grey and the sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, released between 2011 and 2012, the characterisation of ingenue Anastasia Steele and her millionaire stalker Christian Grey is very crude.
Reading of their attraction and interaction is very much like being asked to believe in the warm humanity and emotional truth of a relationship between department store mannequins - literally, for the author spends more time on describing their clothes and stating their physical perfection than on building any emotional connection between the characters, let alone the characters and the reader.
But top of the ick list for me is the chilling fact that Grey sold more than 1.1 million copies in the first four days of its release and, according to the author's dedication, was written to satisfy readers "who asked...and asked...and asked...and asked" for it.
The issue here is not Christian's enjoyment of non-vanilla sexual play typical of the BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sado- masochism) culture, one of many variations of human sexual behaviour, though James manages to insult those in the lifestyle by making Christian's preference a consequence of an abusive childhood and something to be changed.
The real problems are his obsessive and manipulative acts to control and direct the relationship, completely ignoring his partner's will. The narrative of Grey is a window into a sociopathic mind rather than the apology for Christian's character James intended it as.
Enamoured of Anastasia from the minute she stumbles into his office to interview him on behalf of her college newspaper, Christian insists he knows better than her what her body will enjoy. He does his best to isolate her from friends and family: After their first sexual encounter, he commands her not to seek advice or solace from her roommate; he interrupts a trip she takes specifically to get away from him in order to view their relationship objectively. He lavishes her with gifts, even though she repeatedly says these demonstrations of the financial gap between them are upsetting. Of course, when she offers to pay for a breakfast of pancakes, he refuses, saying the gesture would "emasculate" him.
So a relationship in which the male partner uses his wealth, mutual attraction and the woman's relative sexual inexperience to coerce her into a lifestyle that does not meet her emotional and physical needs is being read as acceptable, touted as a "love story" and seen as the ultimate wish fulfilment fantasy of the heterosexual female.
The numbers do not lie. The Fifty Shades Of Grey movie released earlier this year has netted at least half a billion globally. There is an overwhelming - overwhelmingly depressing - market for this story about a college undergraduate swept off her feet by a much older and much richer man. It appears to be the Cinderella story retold, it is Beauty and the Beast with Christian remoulded and reshaped into a perfect prince by the pure, innocent love of the magical virgin - note that none of his 15 previous lovers, all experienced, could help him heal.
Women have fought for centuries for the right to be seen as equal to men, for the right to control the reproductive and sexual uses of their bodies. This basic human right remains a distant dream for millions today, even in the developed world. Many men and women still believe that a woman's sexuality is to be guarded by her father before it is handed over to another male "guardian" in the form of a spouse or partner. It is attitudes like this that led to the horrific gang-rape of a physiotherapy student in 2012 in Delhi - one of her assailants said in a recently released BBC documentary that the woman had no right to be out at night and that she should not have fought back against her attackers either. And attitudes like his begin with the belief that the man knows best what a woman should be like - just like Christian thinks he knows better than Anastasia.
James' novels are frightening because they perpetuate the horrifying idea that a significant power imbalance in a relationship is not only healthy but also what most women want.
The author began writing the books as fan fiction for the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyers, another tale of a drab female protagonist wooed by a much older man - in this case a centuries-old vampire - who stalks her and chases off all other suitors.
Meyer's novels endorsed sexual abstinence before marriage, with human Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen unable to consummate their romance for fear of sparking Edward's inhuman lusts. James took the basic premise and turned it into the unhealthy attraction between a young woman and a man with serious emotional issues.
Twilight featured teenagers, who are not exactly known for impulse control and rational decision-making, but James' franchise features adults who are unfortunately equally immature. And because they are adults, the consequences of their immaturity can be psychologically devastating.
There are men and women who enjoy giving up control to another sometimes, but Anastasia is clearly not one of them. Yet Christian ignores her wishes for most of the nearly 600 pages of Grey - and of Fifty Shades Of Grey too - also making a terrifying throwaway comment about how he ignored another partner's wishes about the timing of their sexual encounters as well. It is all about his pleasure, not his partner's. She is supposed to derive satisfaction from catering to him.
This is the worst sort of misunderstanding about what goes into a healthy relationship and also a terrible misunderstanding of how BDSM partners work - trust and constant communication are key, as they should be in all consensual sexual encounters.
The best part of Grey, and of Fifty Shades Of Grey, was that Anastasia decided she had had enough and walked away. The worst part is that when Christian renews his efforts to seduce her, she caves in easily.
This is how dysfunctional relationships work in real life: the abused get so used to the abuse that it becomes normal, even something to be craved. An analogy that explains why Grey and the success of James' novels terrifies me: it makes millions of readers see the abnormal as normal and even desire it.
If you like this, read: A self-help manual. But for a much better-written and entertaining account of a BDSM relationship, try the action-romance Lover Unbound by J.R. Ward (2007, Signet Books, $12.84, Books Kinokuniya). It will particularly appeal to fans of Twilight as well since the male protagonist is a vampire.