It is strange, when you pause to think about it, that E. L. James is still out there being glowingly profiled as a transgressive, taboo-busting warrior for women’s desire, given that her fictional worlds position female characters somewhere between the saintly Dorothea Brooke and the wimple-wearing Maria von Trapp. Her women are blushing, impoverished virgins, pristine of heart and fragile of appetite; her men, meanwhile, are swaggering Lotharios whose wallets bulge even more conspicuously than their designer underwear. In James’s new book, The Mister, the hero is an English earl who’s also a model-slash-DJ-slash-photographer-slash-composer, and whose first page of interior monologue is a vainglorious ode to “mindless sex” and a “nameless fuck.” His name, if you can stomach it, is Maxim Trevelyan. And the ultimate object of his affections, the woman who will ensure the rake’s progress from libidinous playboy to loyal husband, is … his doe-eyed undocumented Albanian maid, Alessia Demachi.
It’s not just that The Mister is bad. It’s that it’s bad in ways that seem to cause the space-time continuum itself to wobble, slightly, as the words on the page rearrange themselves into kaleidoscopic fragments of repetition and product placement. There’s the simple conceit for the book: James has been compelled to write an erotic novel about a woman who’s been sex-trafficked. There are its gender dynamics, which assert, with the stuffiness of a 19th-century provost, that men can hump anything they please with gay abandon, while women should save themselves for their billionaire employers. (It’s not until page 401 of The Mister that Alessia musters the courage to look directly at Maxim’s penis, as if it’s a basilisk whose unfiltered gaze head-on will turn her to stone.)
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).
Alessia, meanwhile, is a character so contradictory that she feels glued together out of pieces, like an alluring Edward Scissorhands. She’s a 23-year-old virgin who was raised to believe that women do what men say; she’s a virtuoso pianist with synesthesia who sees musical compositions in rainbow colors; she grew up learning English from HBO and Netflix, but she’s never had an alcoholic drink; she ran away when her father arranged her marriage to a local gangster. Her mother, to facilitate her escape, put Alessia on a bus to England, but she was kidnapped by traffickers who stole her passport and planned to force her into prostitution. It’s this last point that feels most glaringly ill-advised. James devotes a little time to the trauma Alessia still feels, having managed to get away, but this is not the kind of book that wants to delve into the machinations of how women are forced into sexual slavery, or the shadow economy in England that targets undocumented immigrants. Alessia’s past is mostly just a narrative device that enables James to plot complications and dramatic face-offs within her story.
Alessia’s escape also allows James to present Maxim as Alessia’s savior, a dynamic that rankles uncomfortably within the uneven framework of their relationship. “Fuck the dishes, baby,” he tells her brazenly, before dragging her off to bed. After Alessia has a nightmare, screaming in terror while remembering how the traffickers put a black plastic bag over her head, Maxim thinks, smirkingly, “Of course, I’d like to make her scream in a different way.” After their relationship deepens, and he invites her to live with him, she “draws a deep breath. ‘I will clean for you. And you will pay me,’” she tells him, an act that’s actually suggested as a bold feminist overture rather than Alessia continuing to position herself as subservient and unequal.
Even more than it’s offensive, though, The Mister is tedious. It’s laborious. James retains her capacity to write sex scenes that last thousands of words in a row, but not without including turns of phrase that make you, as the reader, want to bleach your own brain. Alessia’s moan, Maxim notes, “is soft and husky as her head falls into the palm of my hand. It’s music to my dick.” Later, “a shocked giggle bubbles up from her happy place.” Food porn takes on a whole new meaning when Maxim watches Alessia prepare dinner: “Her long slender fingers hold the knife as she slices open the baked potatoes, releasing wisps of steam. With her brow fixed in concentration, she spreads butter on them, and she stops to lick some melted butter from her index finger. My groin tightens.”
James is clearly—and self-confessedly—a fan of romance novels, and The Mister seems to evoke the formula of historical romances of yore, when men were strong and complicated (and rich), and women were delicate and soothing (and helpless). But the genre itself moved on a long time ago. Nora Roberts is writing books about female firefighters and hostage negotiators. The pervasive whiteness of romance is finally being challenged. Stories like The Mister, which seem to want to wrench female sexuality and status back into the realm of feudalism, have a long distance to go to catch up.