When I first heard that Sasha Grey was writing an erotic novel, I was genuinely excited. While I was concerned about the technical skill that may or may not be present in her writing, a former adult performer seemed like the perfect author for a risqué and unapologizing sexual fantasy.
At first glance, The Juliette Society seems to be about a secret sex society for the rich & powerful, its name inspired by The Marquis de Sade. The blurb on the back cover is Fight Club-esque, but with sex. You do not talk about The Juliette Society. The main character, Catherine, is our window into this world, willing to tell us what happens behind closed doors.
However, as I read the book, I found that synopsis misleading. The novel is not so much about The Juliette Society as it is about Catherine herself. It’s a coming of age story of sorts; a sexual awakening of a 20-something college student. We, as readers, are the audience for her own personal fantasies, and her struggle to reconcile them with reality. As she interacts with individuals who are more sexually liberated than her, she questions where the line is that she shouldn’t cross. What will happen if she goes too far? Will her relationship survive? What does she truly desire?
I was genuinely impressed with Grey’s writing. As erotica publishers seem to favor quantity over quality, I’m always relieved to find an author who has a grasp on the English language and a new perspective to offer. Don’t come into this book expecting tedious descriptions of how “his large, throbbing member entered her wet slit.” Instead, you can expect a full chapter dedicated to her explorative (and rather interesting) thoughts on “come.”
Grey’s greatest talent is in her character voice. Catherine is three-dimensional: not strictly good or bad, but a realistic gray area of personhood. Although it is written in first person, she is not a blank slate for readers to project themselves onto. She has her own interests and desires. She is witty, educated, and stronger than most female leads in the romance genre (even if she is somewhat dependent on her boyfriend for happiness). Her level of introspection provides a dimension not commonly seen in erotic literature.
Although Grey’s attention to character made this book start out as a pleasurable read, I eventually needed more. In the story, (film student) Catherine keeps overstating that “plot is subservient to character,” but in The Juliette Society, plot becomes smothered by character. The entire story traps readers inside Catherine’s head. We don’t get a real, honest glimpse at the personalities or motives of the other characters. We don’t learn anything about the society that the novel is named for. (Catherine only visits twice.) It’s barely even discernible what is happening in Catherine’s daydreams vs. what is happening in her real life.
This might not have been a problem if it was only meant to be a story of sexual awakening, but that’s not the case. There is a largely neglected element of crime & mystery that surrounds The Society. Without a deliberate build up of suspense, the major plot twist feels contrived. The ending falls flat. Plus, it perpetuates negative stereotypes by once again connecting fetishism with murder.
The relationship between the main character and her boyfriend, Jack, also left me feeling uneasy. There’s a complete lack of communication. Catherine is secretive and Jack usually comes off as uninterested. There’s a lot of shame & guilt surrounding sex. Ultimately, Catherine shuts off the part of herself that desires more taboo activities in the bedroom in order to save the relationship. This doesn’t seem healthy.
I could take it or leave it. Although I enjoyed The Juliette Society more than a lot of recent erotica, it’s difficult for me to consider it a part of that genre. I was never aroused by what I was reading. It always seemed more like general fiction, with added sexual aspects. And when compared with the quality standards of general fiction, The Juliette Society just didn’t stack up. However, this being Grey’s first novel, perhaps we can hope for a stronger sequel.