Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ by EL James
There are significantly fewer reviews of Fifty Shades Darker, the second book of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by EL James, than its predecessor. My guess is that the reason is the same as why sales of the trilogy have dipped noticeably after the first book: readers stopped being titillated by the erotica and got sick of the Twilightesque melodrama and bad writing.
As for me, after powering through the first 150 pages of Fifty Shades of Grey (review here) with ease and excitement, I am saddened to say that the rest of the series has thus far been a chore to get through. I began reading Fifty Shades Darker immediately after the first book, and even though I had a lot going on in between, it still took me a full four months to complete.
(By the way, this review is going to have spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book, so be warned.)
Fifty Shades Darker picks up almost right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off — the young, recently deflowered Anastasia Steele (based on Bella Swan from Twilight) is devastated because had just broken up with her young billionaire lover Christian Grey (based on Edward Cullen from Twilight) over her belief that she can never fully satisfy his sadomasochistic desires.
We were left thinking that the spanking, nipple clamps and anal beads were going to be a deal-breaker for these two star-crossed lovers, but for some inexplicable reason they are back getting it on by chapter two as though nothing ever went wrong in their relationship and all problems have been forgotten.
I don’t get it either, but rest assured that the young couple is less tormented by each other in this second book and more by external forces who want to keep them apart.
In a sign that James’s planning and structuring has improved, the story feels slightly less “roaming” and has identifiable story arcs this time. There’s Ana’s sleazy boss who continues to hit on her, Christian’s “Mrs Robinson”, the woman who “saved his life” but turned him into a freak in the bedroom, and some skinny-ass looney girl who used to be one of Christian’s subordinates and can’t get over him. These stumbling blocks appear intermittently throughout this 544-page (paperback) epic to offer some breathing room from the passions of the central characters and to inject some much-needed tension and suspense.
The writing is also generally better, with improvements addressing some of my worst complaints from the first book, but on the whole it is still messy and occasionally downright amateurish. On the bright side, James has cut down on her reliance on mundane email correspondences (that go on for pages and pages without purpose), the constant blushing, cocking of the head to one side and the repetitive descriptions of Christian’s unbelievable beauty — though I suspect the reason is because James got sick of writing these things over and over as opposed to a conscious decision to pare back.
Hanging around, however, the unbearable references to Ana’s “subconscious” and her “inner goddess”, which still drive me up the wall every time they start doing backflips and other acrobatic crap (which is probably at least a hundred times). They are not the same thing, by the way, because she sometimes refers to them both in the same sentence. And call me pedantic, but how can anyone be CONSCIOUSLY aware of what their SUBCONSCIOUS is thinking or doing is beyond me.
You can also almost tell from reading the book when James begins and ends a session of writing because she goes through phases where certain terms are used repeatedly and excessively. For instance, she goes through chunks of the book referring to Christian as “Fifty”. Maybe I’m being a dick here, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking it is endearing to nickname the love of their life a “number” representing their psychotic behaviour and bi-polar tendencies (well, maybe apart from 50 Cent).
Another interesting style change is James’s decision to cut back on the sex scenes, even using the “fade-to-black and skip to next scene” technique we often see in PG movies. It’s a catch-22, really, because when I was reading the sex scenes I was like, “Man, this is so boring and repetitive, I wish she would just skip it”, and when she skipped them I was like “Man, why am I reading this book if she’s skipping all the good parts?” — before realising how unfair I was being.
You can also tell that James has been experimenting after reading too many commercial crime thrillers. Bearing in mind that the series is otherwise told entirely through a first person narrative from Ana’s perspective, the introduction to the novel is inexplicably written in first person through the eyes of Christian when he was a child — and it’s an insignificant piece of information that gets little attention for the rest of the novel. Even more bizarre is the sudden turn to third person narrative for the final pages of the book, from the perspective of a character who has, up to that point, been little more than an annoying, inept nuisance, but is for some reason set up to be the major villain in the final novel. Your guess is as good as mine.
Strangely, despite all my bitching, I actually think Fifty Shades Darker is, on the whole, no better or worse than its predecessor. It’s a different kind of novel that does some things better and other things worse, is more consistent but has less highs and lows. The series has kind of transformed since the first book, much like a relationship. It started off hot and heavy but its mellowing and become more about the emotional connection than the physical one. For some readers, that might be refreshing, and dare I say, rewarding.
There are three problems, though. One, people started reading the book because of the erotica, and the erotica is not that exciting anymore. Two, the relationship has never been very interesting or believable. And three, the book is way too freaking long.
2 out of 5
PS: Yep, reading the third book now.