REVIEW: Story of O by Pauline Réage

How far will a woman go to express her love? In this exquisite novel of passion and desire, the answer emerges through a daring exploration of the deepest bonds of sensual domination. “O” is a beautiful Parisian fashion photographer, determined to understand and prove her consuming devotion to her lover, René, through complete submission to his every whim, his every desire.

It is a journey of forbidden, dangerous choices that sweeps her through the secret gardens of the sexual underground. From the inner sanctum of a private club where willing women are schooled in the art of subjugation to the excruciating embraces of René’s friend Sir Stephen, O tests the outermost limits of pleasure. For as O discovers, true freedom lies in her pure and complete willingness to do anything for love.

Warnings: Sexual violence, masochism and sadism, dubcon, non SSC BDSM, jealousy narratives, suicide mentions

Category: M/F, F/F

Story of O (Histoire d’O) is one of the classics of kink and erotic literature. Originally published in the 1950’s, it took the French publishing world by storm and caused quite the speculation on who it’s author might be. Many at the time did not believe that a woman could have written such a depraved novel, and indeed the book faced obscenity charges and the threat of being banned for some time due to it’s graphic and sexual nature. Nonetheless it has endured as a classic, and is part of a small number of titles that make up the “canon” of kink literature. Clearly having captured the imaginations of many, it has several film adaptations as well as a sequel that is the subject of much debate concerning whether or not it’s author is indeed the same author as the original.

The prose of Story of O is at once a kind of poetic in nature. It is descriptive, and enchantingly sensual, in all of it’s turns of phrase, and leaves one feeling rather embroiled in not just it’s story and characters, but in it’s aesthetic quality. It can feel at times almost dream-like, like an adult fairy tale of sorts. For anyone not interested in BDSM, it would feel like a truly bizarre story, but if you are familiar with BDSM it rings as pure fantasy. The elaborate ritual of it all, and the meticulous attention to fashion is especially appealing and interesting in a text like this; the author goes to great lengths to detail fetish wear that is both alluring and sensual as well as being practical for the debasement of it’s wearer, and I have to say I am absolutely in love with all of it. It’s a very pretty, very elegant and very evocative story. It really gives the reader a strong sense of each present moment in the narrative, and I loved how at times grounded and at others surreal it all felt.

As Story of O is an infamous classic, a hardcore piece of kink literature that has been both widely loved and widely decried for it’s extreme content, I was expecting it to be quite a bit raunchier than it is. However, instead of the extreme degradation and torture porn I was expecting, Story of O is at once more romantic and soft than I’d ever imagined. It develops it’s characters relationships and dynamics in gentle ebbs and flows, and showcases O’s growing connection not just to the Doms in her life, but to her own blossoming submission and masochism. Each relationship she enters into, with both men and women, is unique in nature from the others, and while it is a very outside looking in perspective, it nevertheless gives us an emotional connection to our very emotionally vulnerable protagonist. O is, in all respects, a very passive character, but the slow development of that passivity into something that strengthens and liberates her in the arms of men who love her and love to dominate her, is a real joy to watch unfold.

Now, it does have a few alternate endings that are subject to debate on whether or not they were intended by the author for inclusion. These possible endings give it a rather tragic end and to be perfectly honest, I don’t like them. To me, they undo the emotional momentum of the story and place sadness and tragedy where I don’t want it. But that is my own preference, and the endings certainly aren’t devoid of their own emotional resonance as well, if you choose to take the work with them incorporated into it.

Story of O is set in Paris, but the true worldbuilding is in it’s underground kink scene. This is a book that, you must understand, is not necessarily intended to realistically portray the BDSM scene itself, but rather a secret underground society that lures unsuspecting women into it’s clutches for total domination. It’s a fascinating bit of worldbuilding to that extent. The society has rules, regulations, and ritual in excess. New submissives are trained at secret sub training facilities, coached in the rules of the society, and wear a ring when released back to the outside world that identifies them to others. All of this makes for a wonderful BDSM fantasy society that feels structured as well as sinister and dangerous. It’s worth noting however that it is not depicting real BDSM, and a lot of the things that O is made to go through is of extremely dubious consent and safety. This is a large part of the fantasy of the novel; O may be consenting but there is always the sense of danger for her safety, which is part of what is alluring about the scenario and setting.

It’s hard to know where to really begin in discussing the sexual content in Story of O. It is nowhere near as explicit as I had expected, for starters. Entire sex scenes will pass by over a few brief sentences instead of keeping us with O through the experiences. And yet, despite this rather vague in description approach to sex content, we are instead treated to a lot of very compelling musings on what O is getting out of the sex as well as the tortures she is subjected to. The ways in which her being passed around as a sexual object strengthens her relationships with her Masters, and the ways in which hating the experience of a flogging enriches her life and sense of self. This was written with such euphoria for the experiences of fear, pain and humiliation that I am convinced the author more than knew what she was writing about. It ends up being incredibly arousing despite it’s lack of descriptive lingering, instead giving us glimpses into Os psyche that feel incredibly intimate. I adored it’s exploration and celebration of O’s sexuality and what masochism and submission mean to her. I have read very few other books that hit this chord quite this well.

I can certainly see why Story of O is such a lauded classic. It is engaging, emotionally satisfying, sensual, and beautifully celebratory of masochistic sexuality. A kink fairy tale, through and through. The rather disappointing endings notwithstanding, I adored reading this. If you want to dip your feet into the world of kink literature, this is an excellent starting point.

Have you read Story of O? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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