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Review: 'Grey' more tease than new titillation

Maybe Christian Grey should have remained a man of mystery.

British author E.L. James became a publishing phenom in 2011 with her fan fiction turned erotica blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, quickly followed by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

The three novels about the BDSM-ish affair between virginal college student Anastasia Steele and control-freak rich businessman Christian Grey have sold 125 million copies worldwide, inspired a movie (with two more planned) and been the topic of endless discussion, seen as everything from empowering to a sign of the Apocalypse.

Two weeks ago, James sprung a surprise, announcing she had written another book in the series that was published today. Simply called Grey, the book retells the same events as the first book and a smidge of the second, this time from Christian's point of view.

Mercifully, this spares us Ana's ditzy narrative voice, which sounded like that of a not-too-bright tween; also happily absent are her excitable inner goddess and misunderstood subconscious.

Unfortunately, Christian's first-person narration reveals him to be more crabby than commanding. Just from a quick read (critics got copies a day before publication), I'd guess that the most frequently used word in this book wouldn't be a sex-related term but various forms of the word "irritate." Christian is snippy with secretaries, cranky with colleagues, huffy with housekeepers and even expresses peevishness with his own penis, for Pete's sake.

The whole dominant-submissive thing starts to seem less like a sexual preference and more like just another aspect of his bossy, morose personality: Nobody does anything well enough to suit him, so he has to tell everybody how to do it right, whether "it" is filling out a contract or having an orgasm.

Speaking of contracts, James is one thrifty writer, cutting and pasting in huge chunks of text from Fifty Shades. She recycles bunches of emails as well as that entire 10-page contract that Christian presents to Ana, outlining the details of the dominant-submissive relationship. Then she stacks up page upon page, in emails and in person, of legalistic negotiations between the pair that are about as exciting as watching the wet spot on the sheet dry. (New boring document: Christian, revealed here as even more of a creepy stalker than we thought, runs a background check on Ana right after he meets her.)

Endless repetition was the signature of James' writing style in the trilogy, and that hasn't changed. In the Fifty Shades books she constantly reiterated things like the colors of Christian's eyes and hair, as if readers were too dim to remember anything about him a page or two later.

Here we get not only repetition from the first three books — Ana is still gnawing away at her lip every few pages — but lots and lots (and lots) of Christian's recurring, redundant dreams about his crackhead mother, who called him "Maggot" and died of an overdose when he was 4, leaving him alone with her cooling corpse for days before her pimp broke in and found them.

Clearly intended to make Christian sympathetic and explain his stunted emotions, the story might have been effective if we read it once or twice, but after a few dozen replays it loses any power it might have had.

But out of all that repetition (559 pages worth!) comes little insight into the supposedly fascinating Mr. Grey. Don't come to the book expecting to figure out how the 27-year-old billionaire made his fortune. There's some perfunctory jibber-jabber about fiber optics and asset stripping and expensive redundancies, but nothing that gives us a real sense of his work life.

But the biggest letdown might be the naughty bits. If fans of Fifty Shades were looking forward to the erotic frisson of reading about how the sex felt from Christian's point of view, they may go away disappointed. Not only are the sex scenes — say it with me — repetitious (and mostly what Christian would call "vanilla" rather than BDSM), but they read very much like the originals, that is, as if felt from a woman's point of view. I'm all for woman-centered erotica, but Grey is supposed to be the other side of the story. Instead there's very little sense of his sensations except prose replete with heat and explosions and the earth moving, yada yada yada, coupled with sappy, cliched outbursts about how beautiful Ana is.

Whether you read it to find out what Christian is really thinking or what he's really feeling in that Red Room of Pain, Grey turns out to be just a tease.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Grey

By E.L. James

Vintage, 559 pages, $15.95

Review: 'Grey' more tease than new titillation 06/18/15 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2015 5:10pm]
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