Bared to You by Sylvia Day [Crossfire #1] shares a lot in common with the [unfortunately] more popular Shades of Grey by E.L. James. As in the 50 Shades trilogy, the Crossfire trilogy follows the first-person adventures of an administrative-assistant-level young woman, Eva in Bared to You, and her rollercoaster relationship with a young rich man, Gideon in Bared to You, who owns the company for which she works. They have sex and fight a lot, sometimes simultaneously. Their relationship involves some bdsm, submission for the protagonist, domination for the love interest. A series of assumptions, piss-offs, misunderstandings, apologies, jealousies, running-aways and reconciliations passes for plot. And don’t forget the sex. At the end, the reader is exhausted, but there are still two books to go!
But that’s where the similarities end. Crossfire exceeds 50 Shades in quality at every level.
There’s some actual character development. Eva, having dealt with molestation by her stepbrother in the past and chronic stalking from her "Oh, I’m just CONCERNED about you!" mother in the present, is understandably obsessed with boundaries and limits. When she perceives a threat to her structural integrity, she responds by running away. Gideon really turns her on as a person, and submission to him as a dominant also turns her on. However, her past as a sexually exploited person and his tendency to cling [see below] freak her out.
Meanwhile, Gideon was [and I’m just guessing here] raped by his brother or other male relative when he was young. He has responded by separating his sexual activities from emotional involvement. He’s had a fair amount of consensual sex, but he’s very lonely, doesn’t have any friends. When he perceives a threat on his structural integrity, he either attempts reverting to the emotionless automatic state that has protected him so well over the years, or he clings [physically]. Eva really turns him on as a person, and dominating her also turns him on. Her interest in combining sexual and emotional involvement and her tendency to flee [see above] freak her out.
Eva and Gideon hit each other’s major buttons in both enjoyable and miserable ways. They spend much of the book consciously turning each other on, while also inadvertantly triggering each other. After triggering each other, they both tend to panic, revert to old habits [Eva: "Runawayrunaway!" — Gideon: "Clingcling!"] and let their emotions overwhelm them instead of trying to explain what they are feeling and why. Then they calm down and express themselves, which leads to a newfound feeling of closeness, which they inevitably express by banging each other, which inevitably brings up some other hangup…etc., etc.
So, not only do we have believable personalities driving the events of the story, but we have something interesting going on: a relationship between two people at war with themselves in ways that bring out the worst in each other. Day writes vividly and convincingly enough from Eva’s point of view so that the reader understands her lust and her fear in equal measure. Both of them pinball her in drastically different directions, sometimes in a matter of pages or paragraphs. The constant strife startles me and unnerves me, but it makes psychological sense and forms an overall coherent picture of a woman in lust with a man [who’s also in lust with her] who she might not be ready for and who might not be ready for her either. In fact, I know they aren’t ready for each other, and they should just keep their hands off each other and calm down, but then there would be no plot. I would, however, feel less wrung out after reading the series. :p
Furthermore, moments of self-reflection from both Eva and Gideon make them a lot more palatable than the insufferable tantrum throwers of 50 Shades. For example, Eva realizes in the beginning that a relationship with Gideon will be a huge demand on her time and energy, and she’s not sure how she feels about that. Is there space in her life for him right now? [Well, there’s certainly space for him in her pants.] Anyway, the fact that she recognizes this and tells this to him — even if her loins end up circumventing this sensible objection — proves to me that Day actually took the effort to make Eva a specific individual, rather than E.L. James’ vapid ingenue
protagonist narrative vortex of insipidity whose name has currently slipped my mind.
Over in Gideon’s head, he plays his usual part of suave master, which does not elicit the usual responses from Eva, who wants bangin’ hot sex and emotional intimacy. Gideon takes a while to realize that his long-lived tactics are not working. [No, taking your sex partner to the hotel room where you have stocked supplies for all your quickies is not a good idea when your partner is acutely vulnerable to feelings that she is an easily used and easily disposed lay.] To his credit, he eventually does realize, apologize and do things differently. [Right after the disastrous experience in the Quickie Room, Gideon brings Eva to his house, which he is very nervous about, having never done this before, but they both recognize that this is a significant development that represents trust for both of them. And they’re so happy that they have sex again.] He does spend an inordinate amount of time saying, "I’m sorry," which kind of makes me want him to just shut up and behave differently already. That said, Gideon demonstrates that it’s possible for an author to portray the "masterful, dominating dude" type with some nuance and perhaps even a grain of self-awareness. It is definitely problematic [in that abusers especially know how to act contrite and feign penitence — on the other hand, Gideon actually regrets fucking up], but it is much more interesting to read than Christian Grey’s "I will stalk you and control you and abuse you and do it my way, and you’ll just learn to like it because I’m not changing at all because of reasons so there!" justification for all the bullshit he tosses at Protagonist Whose Name Escapes Me.
Besides character development, an interesting psychological foundation and some welcome self-consciousness on the characters’ parts, Bared to You also features better sex scenes than 50 Shades. I admit that, first, appreciation of porn is subjective to a certain degree and, second, I am not at all the target audience for this type of porn.
That being said, the sex scenes in the 50 Shades trilogy read as very remote and stereotyped. Because James’ characters don’t have differentiated interior lives that inflect their every action, James falls back on the stereotypes of "virginal but lusty ingenue" and "masterful dipstick with a tragic past" when detailing their behavior. The result is about as interesting as two pieces of bread flapping together, a ridiculous tedium compounded by the author’s blatant cluelessness about bdsm. [For her, it’s all very dramatic and cinematic and edgy, with secret opulent dungeons and exhaustive slave contracts and tortured souls acting out their fantasies. Munches, leather pride, racism in the scene and the scourge of the creepy dom would probably just strike her as too mundane.] In summary, James’ lack of imagination and reliance on stereotypes yield really boring sex scenes.
Now that you know how much E.J. James’ writing stinks, you will understand how much pleasure and relief I derive from escapist romance porn created by a person with narrative skill. As I have intimated above, Day knows how to individualize her characters and use their temperaments and personalities to drive the plot. Not only do their personalities drive the plot, but also the sex scenes. I especially liked the scene in which Eva pushes her own limits and works to reinterpret anal sex as something that can bring her enjoyment, rather than unhappiness. I enjoyed seeing not just the main character rising to a challenge, but also seeing her partner negotiate with her attentively and seriously. I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a sex scene where the characters have a tentative and messy discussion right in the middle of it, then yielding to mutual satisfaction. I certainly don’t expect that kind of nuance in my porn, but it sure makes my porn a) hotter, as it’s about realistic, relateable, individual people and b) easier to read, as something is happening besides pieces of bread flapping together.
As a sidebar, however, I must acknowledge that Day has little grace and style in her sentence craft. My eyes began to revolve in my head when she used "frenetic" twice in as many pages and "masculine" [Eva’s favorite adjective for Gideon] at least 15 times in the first 30 pages. Though a bit redundant, Day’s prose serves the story adequately in general and, as a bonus, mercifully eschews ridiculous porno terms for Gideon’s penis. No "shaft" or "throbbing manhood," thank God. Sadly, Eva’s vulva appears several times under the guise of a "cleft" and, in the most risible line ever, a "trembling slit." That’s going down in the ol’ memory banks as silliest euphemism ever.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for heteronormative bdsm lite porn involving white, economically secure U.S. citizens without disabilities, please choose the Crossfire series by Sylvia Day instead of the 50 Shades trilogy by E.L. James. Crossfire, of course, has its problems. For one thing, the only woman of color, Magdalena, a Latina, is characterized viciously and dismissively as a fat, catty, vengeful, irrational annoyance. For another, Eva’s flatmate and only friend Cary is a cardboard Gay Best Friend Accessory [TM] who, when he’s not appreciating haute couture and doing Eva’s hair, has problematic, promiscuous, unprotected sex. Furthermore, the book suffers from invisible lesbians and rampant heteronormativity, as when Eva remarks that Gideon’s looks would automatically compel all women to jump his bones, since, of course, all women are turned on by dudes. That being said, it does have its strengths, enumerated above, and deserves consideration as a competently written romance porno with interesting characters.