There has been much buzz about E L James’ latest Grey/Steele incarnation of 50 Shades of Grey. While I cannot bring myself to read it, having already read the first book of the series, many reviewers and bloggers have made much about Christian Grey as a perfect man: still young with his boyish charms and flashes of whimsy, yet mature beyond his years; an Adonis-like male visage; unimaginably wealthy; a stallion in all manners sexual; and, too, just vulnerable enough with his broken past — perhaps appealing to the mythos that a woman likes to heal and change the man she finds.
Yet with all of this, I am left cold when thinking about the idealized character of Christian Grey, resigning myself to ponder the question of perfection in a potential partner and what I think is more apt to be — especially as applied to Christian Grey and many other characters of romance fiction — unlikely. And as Grey is a fiction where one must suspend reality—and I do mean suspend — it does shed light on the more plastic ideals that fill the pages of so many romance novels and movie plots these days.
Having just written my own novel of sex and romance in Thailand, Malee: A Tear In The Ocean, I cannot help but compare Grey to Michael, the protagonist in my own work. Michael, like Grey, is handsome, wealthy, a savvy businessman, deeply conflicted emotionally, has a benevolent streak in which he frequently indulges, and, of course, does just fine in the romance department, frequently sending his partners into the ecstasy of the beyond. Yet there is something tangible about Michael that eludes the more archetypical character of Grey in James’ updated rip off of Pygmalion. While Michael is a shrewd businessman, he is soft, available, and present. Hurt from a recent, unexpected divorce, he remains open to the possibility that love is still available, is still possible, and then finds it staring him in the face, enraptured by a younger Thai woman: Malee, a character who is multifaceted with her own tragic background, a woman who worries and despairs about her future, but too lives in the sweep of an unexpected, unlooked-for love. Michael and Malee, each with their own particular past complete with all its wounds, desires, and hopes, hit notes that resonate with the real, not the impossibly unlikely.
I am not suggesting that there is no place for the trope and the canned storyline. Clearly there is — the story of Grey is one that has been told and retold. Rather, what I have been considering is the trap that these novel set not only for their characters, but for those reading two-dimensional escapist works. I wonder if it makes the vigor of a real mate less appealing, and leaves one now not only looking for the jet on the tarmac or Charlie Tango to whisk one off for the night, but languishing in the expectation of it.
What I find more appealing and enduring are characters that are not simply foils for more dynamic leads, but rather a balance of growth that perfection that idealization simply does not allow. I will not use James’ self-aggrandizing attempt to compare her own work to that of Thomas Hardy, but here, in James, there is a brooding character, Grey, not quite out of a Victorian novel, rather he is one that plays to the archetype of the troubled male lead — nothing more. Here, predictably, there is the female lead (yes, virginal even) who redeems the male character from his debauchery, from the darkness. Does Jane Eyre come to mind? Perhaps. And yet Grey is nowhere near the literary achievement of the Brontës — Grey does what it does: a quick read that pulls the reader into the inconceivable.
In Malee: A Tear In The Ocean, I worked to give equal voice to the protagonist love pair, to create a scenario that, while sweepingly romantic at times, focuses on the truth and prismatic reality of love. Malee, even in her broken English, says more about the anguish of loss than Anastasia Steele can ever present in her four-book simpering over perceived inadequacies before the Adonis who stands over her. With perfection there is no room for growth. With perfection one runs the risk of boredom — as the saying goes, you may love having your favorite dessert every day for each meal, but then you find that it quickly begins to cloy. Living with the perfect male does not allow for exchange, but can lead to derision, to disdain, and finally to being discarded as he, too, searches in vain for the elusive female perfection himself.
So why are these novels like Grey cathartic? Perhaps because they do not make one think too hard on their own situation, on the real, on the work of relationships between people who are complex in their daily existence, in their wants, in their desires and in their fears and tears. In Malee there is an opportunity for — no, the demand for — the characters to communicate their longings, worries, their pasts as it colors the future. In the case of our heroine, Malee, we can understand her reason for running to possibility. She is not unlikely, but rather all too real. Michael in all of his hurt, now deeply in love with Malee, clings to her as he is vulnerable, open to the possibilities that true love can and does exist. Despite, or rather because of all of Michael’s flaws, he is more appealing, more endearing, more possible — even more wrenching and simultaneously cathartic — than the predictable Christian Grey. For my part, I prefer the possibility of encountering characters who read as real people, people I feel I know, who I can understand and with whom I can empathize in their loves, their hopes and their losses. To me this is the hallmark of literature and of works that truly provoke, not simply the repetition found in so much of today’s genre fiction.
MALEE: A TEAR IN THE OCEAN
A novel of international romance.
Michael could not have known when he flew into Bangkok to launch a new company that his life would change so dramatically. Working on million dollar negotiations during the day and spending tropical nights accompanying his Thai-savvy business partner, Drake, through the hotspots of the city, Michael felt a shift from the pain of his broken marriage to the exhilaration of Thailand. Yielding to its stimulating allure, Michael and Drake jet off to the unspoiled island of Koh Samui to enjoy its intoxicating escapes. There, Michael met the woman of his dreams, and nothing could stop the sweeping romance from redefining their lives.
Malee, a beautiful young factory worker, was a standout amongst the hustlers as she crossed the room. As Michael followed her every movement, fate played its hand—an innocent touch sparked their passionate love affair. Inseparable, Michael and Malee spent their days together exploring the riches of Thailand and their nights embracing the magnitude of one another’s desires. All was idyllic until Michael had to fly to New York, an extended separation, the first of several to come, that challenged their love and resolve...
Spanning three continents, Malee: A Tear in the Ocean is an international romance that takes the reader from the heights of euphoria to the depths of loss. Michael and Malee’s love is woven through intertwining cultures, misunderstandings, and captivating desire. Wrenching the reader from passion to anguish and back again, Malee: A Tear in the Ocean beckons you to experience the thrill of their journey.