Book review: Fifty Shades of Grey, plus two more

Anastasia Steele is bright, witty, and beautiful—in the eyes of her boyfriend Christian Grey, who’s no dog himself as far as looks go. To boot, he’s not badly off. Think Daddy Warbucks and scale up by a few powers of ten. $100,000 an hour (an hour!) is not small change. Potential drawback in the ‘ideal boyfriend department’: his apartment has a room full of gadgets that would make the Marquis de Sade turn green as a cornichon.

If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, then you haven’t read E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, this summer’s risqué read that has soared to the top of the best seller charts swifter than Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000.

To say that the book is well written is an understatement. Vivid well-paced scenes, convincing dialogue, a natural and sympathetic heroine (Ana is wonderful), smoothly flowing text, plus an intriguing plot that James succeeds in making believable all add up to the kind of book that could serve as a useful resource for a creative writing class. Possible downside: the content would be distracting.

Two other novels come to mind, both having Fifty Shades‘s dual attributes of raciness and fine quality writing: the World War II spoof Commander Amanda Nightingale by George Revelli, and that gem of French erotic literature, Histoire d’O (Story of O, in English) by Pauline Réage.

Revelli’s Commander Amanda Nightingale is a comic piece, and somewhat dated in its views. (To be fair, it was published in the 1960s). Amanda Nightingale is a clergyman’s daughter—virginal and yet in search of sexual adventure. Already, one sees some similarity with Anastasia. Amanda joins the British First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs) as a cover. In reality, she’s training to become a secret agent. Misfortune befalls her as she parachutes into Nazi-occupied France. She’s captured by a trio of Germans who not only ‘have their way with her’—to use the bodice-ripper euphemism—but decide to keep her for themselves rather than hand her over to the authorities.

Commander Amanda has its (many and justified) detractors, as do the various sequels: Resort to War, Amanda’s Castle, Amanda in Spain, and Amanda in Berlin. Nonetheless, the fact that the book is well written comes as no surprise. George Revelli was, in reality, Geoffrey Bocca—the well known British novelist, nonfiction author and former writer-in-residence at a host of US colleges. Bocca wrote You Can Write a Novel (Prentice-Hall, 1983)—one of my favourite how-to’s and, surprise, surprise, he uses his Amanda books for instruction in literary technique.

Histoire d’O (1954) was written by Pauline Réage (again a pen name; her real name was Anne Desclos) and centres on a woman fashion photographer who is simply named ‘O’. As in Fifty Shades of Grey, O submits to her lover’s rigorous demands—but she is afterwards passed on to others (which is a strict no-no and against the written rules in Fifty Shades).

All three books share a common thread, that of a strong, spirited young woman who is tossed in at the deep end of the BDSMic pool, flounders, then copes and—in the end—triumphs. O does worst in terms of lovers. Her early one is a weasel and the later one is an arrogant bore. [Are you reading this, Sir Stephen? There’s a reason for putting O’s name, not yours, on the cover of the book!]  O stunningly outshines each and every one of the male protagonists. Take my word for it: in terms of boyfriends, Anastasia has the better deal.

Final bonus points: One to Ana for her sense of humour. She never loses it. Amanda is a tad hyper, and O (of whom I’m a huge fan, don’t misunderstand me) is a soupçon overserious.
A bonus point should also go to French actress Corinne Cléry for her sensitive portrayal of O in the 1975 movie. James Bond fans will also know her from the movie Moonraker, where she’s hunted down and killed by Drax’s dobermans.


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