Mostly, though, there’s the writing. I have, for my sins, read all three novels in James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, a series that took sadomasochism and remarketed it for Christian housewives shopping at Target, all hot-pink padded nylon restraints and branded nipple clamps. The one positive thing you can say about The Mister is that it steers (mostly) clear of BDSM, and so doesn’t misinform millions of readers about the dynamics of consent. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, though, it has an errant creepiness about it that’s defined by its strange loyalty to the male gaze. Christian Grey, to me, is a man’s idea of a romantic hero—a 27-year-old tech entrepreneur with planes and cars and helicopters instead of a personality, a squillionaire whose idea of sexual gratification incarnate is getting a woman to do exactly what he says. And The Mister is no different, really, in that its male characters have power and its female characters cook and clean.
At the beginning of the novel, Maxim is a 28-year-old aristocrat-playboy whose older brother has just died, meaning that he’s obliged, in English terms, to buck up and start fulfilling his role as heir to the Trevethick estate (vast swaths of land and country houses in Cornwall, Northumberland, and Oxfordshire). Maxim is annoyed that this interferes with his nocturnal schedule of playing Korean house music at nightclubs in Hoxton and using his side gig as a model to sleep with “hot, skinny women.” But then his regular maid, his “daily,” is replaced by Alessia, whose introduction jolts Maxim into an uncharacteristic pattern of celibacy and composing concertos on the piano. “I am cleaner, Mister,” Alessia whispers to him, “her eyes still downcast, and her eyelashes fanned out above her luminous cheeks.” “Yes,” Maxim thinks. “For a woman dressed in a nylon housecoat, she’s hot.”
Their relationship is crystallized by loaded looks over household chores, captured in paragraphs that are both breathy and unintentionally comical. Alessia, Maxim observes, “moves with such easy, sensuous grace; bending over the sofa, lithe, toned arms reaching out and delicate, long-fingered hands cupping the crumbs from the seat cushions and brushing them off.” Moving on, “with a deliberate and even pace, she works her way around the piano, buffing and polishing, her breathing becoming faster and harder with the exertion. It’s agonising. I close my eyes and imagine how I could elicit the same response from her.” Maxim is stupidly horny, but he’s also dully unimaginative: Alessia, he thinks, “irons with the same sensuous grace I noticed the other day [emphasis mine], in long, easy strokes.”
James’s signature quality as a writer is specificity. No wine can go unlisted—“tasty Italian Barolo,” “good Chablis,” “Château Haut-Brion.” She gives us internal monologues that have the breadth and emotional resonance of the white pages. “I understand why she’s emotional,” Maxim thinks in one moment. “What a day. If I’m astounded by today’s events, she must be overwhelmed. Completely overwhelmed. I think it’s best if I leave her alone to gather her thoughts. Besides, it’s late and I have to make some calls.” No errant thought or observation of Maxim’s is unworthy of inclusion. (“We pull into the Gordano Services on the M5 just after 10:00 pm. I’m hungry in spite of the cheese sandwich Magda made for me back in Brentford.”) This kind of indiscriminate detail explains why The Mister is more than 500 pages long, but what’s baffling is that despite this exhaustive access to the inner workings of Maxim’s mind, he’s as wooden and charmless as a sideboard (and if E. L. James were writing this, she’d tell you that the sideboard came from West Elm or Restoration Hardware, and that it was polished to a smooth, sexy, expensive-looking sheen).