It’s been about a year since the Fifty Shades of Grey series, about that mopey millionaire and his insufferable sex slave, became a pop-culture phenomenon. In that time, author E.L. James has received a critical flogging (the London Review of Books said she “deploys every bonkbuster cliché in existence”) and inspired a new sub-genre (“mommy porn”) on her way to selling an astounding 70 million books.
Despite its atrocious prose, Fifty Shades has titillated many people and contributed to a broader cultural acceptance of slave-and-master relationships. Now that mainstream readers have warmed to the idea of sadomasochistic sex, perhaps they’ll be ready to embrace Chloe Hooper’s new novel, The Engagement, a more intelligent, writerly, and provocative take on some of the themes in E.L. James’s series.
Liese Campbell, the heroine of The Engagement, is a thirtysomething architect with bad debts who flees England to work for her uncle’s high-end real estate firm in Melbourne, Australia. She soon starts moonlighting as a call girl for a brooding businessman named Alexander Colquhoun. Every few days, she and Alexander meet up, under the auspices of finding him a new home, to have illicit sex—sometimes involving bondage—in the condos she shows him.
Like slap-happy Christian Grey and the virginal Ana Steele, Liese and Alexander’s affair is predicated on a contract, and the tension in The Engagement derives from each person’s expectations of the role he or she is meant to play. The twist is that prior to meeting Alexander, Liese had never accepted money for sex before; their transactions are the result of a misunderstanding that she never cleared up. Alexander, meanwhile, thinks she’s a full-time sex worker.
The idea of prostitution as a pastime no doubt scandalizes some people, but rather than echoing Ana Steele’s moralistic tone, Hooper challenges the reader to see it through Liese’s eyes: as a game, a turn-on, and, of course, a tidy income. While her motives are hazy, Liese is fully in control of the situation, and she comes to enjoy the part, inventing stories about other clients in order to enrich the role play and keep Alexander’s emotions at bay.
None of the ideas discussed in these novels are new, but because they’re often too pulpy, graphic, or academic for mainstream tastes, books about “transgressive” sex have traditionally been hived off in the darkened corners of bookstores. The same way that Fifty Shades is a populist version of bondage books such as Laura Antoniou’s (much kinkier) Marketplace series, The Engagement explores some of the same ground as U.S. author Michelle Tea, who advocates the notion that intelligent, independent women can be sex workers without compromising their self-worth.
While E.L. James’s series has done a great deal to popularize bondage, its greatest failing is propagating an unfounded stereotype about the lifestyle. One of the central planks of the series is the idea that Ana must save her lover from his “perverse” desires. James ties Christian Grey’s predilection for whips and chains to a childhood trauma, thereby perpetuating an old saw that weird kinks are the product of psychological damage.
If you read the Fifty Shades trilogy, you’ll know that Christian and Ana’s fraught foreplay eventually leads to a very traditional outcome: marriage. I can only speculate whether Hooper was deliberately riffing on James’s deep conservatism, but The Engagement takes this puritanical attitude to task. When Liese tells Alexander she’s moving to Shanghai, he kidnaps her in an all-out bid to save her from her perceived slavery—through forced marriage.
“Presumably Alexander wanted to purify his desire,” Liese muses in the chilling final act. “But the whole point of marriage was to cancel out the erotic. It was essentially a contract between two people so as not to have to sleep together.”
Whatever your thoughts on these prickly issues, you have to admire the chutzpah of a writer who suggests that marriage is the ultimate form of oppression—and that freelance sex may be the most freeing sex there is.