E.L. James has a lot to answer for. After turning what began as Twilight fan fiction into the fastest-selling paperback series of all time, James convinced publishers there was an eager market for her brand of easily digestible erotica, and publishers rushed in to fill the void, with series from Sylvia Day and Sylvain Renard. Now comes the first novel in a new series by pseudonymous Canadian author L. Marie Adeline.
S.E.C.R.E.T. tells the story of Cassie Robichaud, a New Orleans waitress who has been celibate for five years after a turbulent marriage to an alcoholic man. One day, a customer leaves behind a journal at the café where Cassie works. The journal turns out to be a sex diary detailing the customer’s involvement with S.E.C.R.E.T., an underground society devoted to awakening women’s dormant sexuality. “Each letter stands for something,” says the woman who becomes Cassie’s mentor and initiates her into the secrets of S.E.C.R.E.T. “But our whole reason for being is liberation through complete submission to your sexual fantasies.”
After being sworn to silence (the first rule of sex club is, you do not talk about sex club), Cassie begins a journey that involves nine steps, each intended to fulfill a different sexual fantasy. The novel’s framework, which resembles nothing so much as a 12-step recovery regime for addicts, is its first problem: by setting up such a rigid structure, Cassie’s sexual encounters become programmatic and predictable.
They are also fairly vanilla, as befits a novel with frank aspirations to mass-market bestsellerdom. Indeed, S.E.C.R.E.T. is a deeply conservative book, in absolute thrall to conspicuous consumption. Cassie is ferried to her encounters in limousines and helicopters, decked out in Christian Louboutin pumps, and presented opportunities to canoodle with a superstar hip-hop singer and a billionaire playboy who buys her at a charity auction. (One of the abiding secrets of S.E.C.R.E.T. is where the organization gets its massive store of funds.)
S.E.C.R.E.T. contains nothing that is liable to threaten the consumerist status quo or make readers truly uncomfortable. This is the greatest sin committed by James and her followers: they have taken a genre that thrives on subversion and danger and watered it down for mass consumption. S.E.C.R.E.T. has more in common with a mass-produced Harlequin romance than with the work of Pauline Réage or Anaïs Nin, and Cassie’s adventures are perfectly in keeping with heteronormativity and the kind of fairy-tale approach to love promulgated by Hollywood and Hallmark. This, unfortunately, denudes the novel of its forbidden aspect, reducing it to cliché. And in literature, as in sex, clichés don’t help build excitement.