The Sunday Telegraph
Novel of the week Marianka Swain
Ten years ago, EL James published Fifty Shades of Grey as an ebook and print-on-demand paperback. From these modest beginnings came a blockbuster erotic romance franchise, with books sales of 165 million, three (progressively more terrible) films and a shot in the arm for the sex-toy industry. Now comes the final chapter in the whip-cracking saga: Freed, which retells the story of 2012’s Fifty Shades Freed (the conclusion of the original trilogy) from the perspective of BDSM-obsessed billionaire Christian Grey, rather than his conquest, Anastasia Steele. It is already, inexplicably, top of the UK and US bestseller charts.
Christian and Anastasia are planning a speedy wedding – briefly derailed by a prenup, but, since the series has always been a consumerist fantasy as much as a sexual one, Ana and her student loans are soon happily conjoined with Christian’s financial empire. By putting the story in his voice, James can unleash the full force of his self-loathing. There’s less focus on fetishes, more on the earnest question of whether or not he is husband material – although there’s still plenty of sex, too. Contrary to Fifty Shades’s raunchy reputation, it is all fairly tame – bringing a mild kink to the “Disney princess” fantasy. It’s happily ever after, with handcuffs.
Instead, the truly punishing aspect is the unending detail James inflicts over 768 woefully written pages, from Christian’s favourite sandwich (turkey club) to Ana’s views on Paris (she loves the Louvre!). It’s like Tripadvisor, but less eventful. About 300 pages in, a thriller plot grinds into gear, but neither arson nor a car chase gets as much attention as Ana giving Christian a haircut.
Bridgerton has proved there is a market for the unthreatening steamy romance, and at least that had a sense of fun. James’s bondage-lite doorstoppers are devoid of (intentional) humour, yet contain lines like “Her tongue greets mine, in every language, until we’re both panting.” Now that’s real pain.