So there’s this noodle place in the main shopping centre of the town I live in. And it’s bad. It’s always bad. Yet every now and then I go in anyway, cursed with hopeless optimism that maybe this time it won’t be so awful. Sure, I’ve yet to be proven wrong on that front, but it can’t get any worse, and maybe by some turn of luck I’ll get an okay meal. Not a good one but at least something digestible. Then I actually eat it and it’s gross and it sits in my guts for hours weighing me down with queasiness and exhaustion and that futile feeling of knowing that once again I’ve gone against my better judgment and wasted my time.
Did I mention that I read E.L. James’s new book today?
Look, The Mister is bad, but you knew that before you clicked on this review. You did not need me to confirm your preconceptions on this topic. I’m sure some of you will be wondering why I bothered to read it in the first place, or consider it an exercise in bad faith for me to review something that I clearly knew I wouldn’t like or think was any good to begin with. Fair enough, but let’s not pretend your own curiosity didn’t get the better of you too. This woman has become one of the most successful writers of fiction of the past decade despite never displaying a discernible sliver of talent. The Twilight fan-fiction author who made millions from 50 Shades through a combination of cringe-inducing metaphors, The Room-level sex scenes, and wide-scale normalization of domestic abuse is essentially untouchable in the publishing world now. She’s made too many people too much money to have to worry about frivolities like quality. Still, now that the 50 Shades movie trilogy is complete (much to the relief of fellow Overlord TK) and there’s only one book left in her Midnight Sun knock-off re-telling of the series from the abuser’s point-of-view, one couldn’t help but be curious about what E.L. James would do next. After all, when you have all the freedom in the world to tell whatever story you want to with the knowledge that you’ll get a big advance and top the best-seller charts regardless, surely the world is your oyster?
The story James decides to tell is insufferably boring, of course, populated by genre clichés that attempt to blur self-insert fantasy with gritty social commentary in a manner that embarrasses more than intrigues. Maxim Treveleyan is the new Earl to Trevethick (get it? Thick because he’s got a huge penis) following the death of his older brother. He is, as is the way of things in such stories, gorgeous and stupidly rich and exploring his grief by f*cking his late brother’s widow. Things change, of course, when he meets Alessia Demachi, his new cleaner, and he quickly becomes enthralled by this Eastern European woman who speaks in broken English and has her own demons in her past.
Some people are not equipped to write stories of social realism that delves into topics like domestic abuse and sex trafficking. E.L. James is to these topics what Hannibal Lecter is to vegan cookery. The Mister features a heroine who was smuggled by traffickers from Albania to London to escape her abusive fiancé but escaped before she could be sold into sex slavery, and these matters are treated with the same care and focus by James as she affords to scenes where Maxim details his favourite music or the lavish meals they eat together. As with 50 Shades, James’s biggest obsession lies with the fetishizing of wealth and capitalism. Maxim, an Earl who is also a model, photographer, DJ and playboy, is steeped in luxury at every moment, and James revels in descriptions of clothes, country houses, the Jo Malone bubble bath Alessia uses (brand names are plentiful here, to the point where I was curious if said product placement was paid). The musicians Maxim listens to are mentioned with such frequency that you wonder if James did so in preparation for the future movie soundtrack. In 50 Shades, Christian Grey’s gift buying and wielding of his financial power over Anastasia Steele was one of many ways he exerted control over her life under the guise of romance. Here, James has decided to grease the wheels of such awkwardness by making Alessia utterly dependent on Maxim. As much as the story tries to tell us she is no damsel, she is still a woman living undocumented in a strange country while on the run from abusers and traffickers, so the dynamic of having her employer become her benefactor never stops feeling uncomfortable.
The tone never stops jumping from place to place either, as these moments of escapist upper-class luxury are contrasted with Alessia being beaten by sex traffickers and her abusive fiancé. In one chapter, the point-of-view jumps from Alessia being hit then forced into a car boot to Maxim enjoying a nice Negroni in a posh hotel. It is only the most obvious example of how these stories do not mesh together. The issue is exacerbated by the decision to have the POV jump from Maxim’s first person to Alessia’s third person, and aside from Maxim’s overuse of the word f*ck, there is no discernible difference between the two. James, to put it bluntly, does not have the range.
What proves most fascinating about The Mister is how little James has grown as a writer and storyteller. The book still reads like fan-fiction in that it is structured like a serialized story James posted chapter by chapter with no consideration for issues like pacing. This is what makes the overall reading experience of over 500 pages such a slog. The subplot of the sex traffickers comes and goes, as if James was editorially mandated to include it but had no interest in fully intertwining it with the romantic narrative. This doesn’t help much with characterization either, although thankfully the hero to this book is miles better than Christian Grey. He uses condoms, he cares about consent, he doesn’t seem entirely shut off from his emotions, and there’s no evidence he thinks of shoving ginger root into women’s vaginas. So, go, Maxim? He’s not a good hero, by any means, but the problem here is that he’s wholly dull rather than morally repulsive (although a moment where is penis is described as ‘Large. Hooded. Flexible’ did make me gag). I’ll take progress where I can get it.
Alessia, on the other hand, may be the worst female character James has ever written. Despite being a chess prodigy, a world-class piano player who has never taken professional lessons, and having grown up with English-speaking family members, she is still depicted as speaking broken English like a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo. She utterly lacks the deftness and emotional heft to deal with a heroine left traumatized by being a literal victim of sex trafficking. Because James is clearly so bored by her own plot and the weight of it, she is all too quick to discard any of the real psychological burdens that Alessia clearly carries in favour of getting to the romancing. When her narrative concludes, it seems that James wants you to herald Alessia as a strong independent woman overcoming the bleak circumstances of her past (and hoo boy, would I love to get the opinions on some actual Albanians on how James depicts both the country and its people - all Albanian men are violent thugs who want subservient wives while impeccable English posh boy Maxim is the perfect gentleman). Instead, it reads as another rescue fantasy where a rich man saves the day.
I’m not sure why I expected more from James on this front. Stories of her reputation are widespread, including her notorious behaviour in her fandom days and the way she allegedly treated Sam Taylor-Johnson and Kelly Marcel during the making of the 50 Shades of Grey movie. This is the woman who supposedly threatened revolt if the screenplay changed any of her dialogue, even though every critic noted her cringe-worthy writing was easily the worst thing about the film. The Mister at least seems to possess the vaguest guiding hand of editorial insight, especially when compared to 50 Shades, but it is still aimless and pointless in the way work written by those who believe each word they write to be untouchable is. Tighten up the plotting, bring in some sensitivity readers and focus more on building romantic tension, and this book could have been at the very least interesting. The ways it could have been improved are evident in every chapter, but why bother with that when your author knows she’ll sell countless copies and be heralded as a genius anyway?
‘Why bother’ feels like a good summary for The Mister. While it isn’t the ethically reprehensible trainwreck the 50 Shades saga is, this is still a passionless experience that doesn’t even have the decency to be funny in its ineptitude. Rather, it is a dull and plodding book that is somehow just aggravating enough in places to ensure the reader doesn’t immediately fall asleep. I fail to see who this is for. At least 50 Shades had the Twilight hook and the allure of being a mainstream entry-point into S&M erotica for newbies. The Mister struggles to justify its own existence beyond the fact that a very famous woman wrote it and knows she could fart out any old nonsense to the tune of millions of dollars. And people will buy it, even if only out of morbid curiosity. Hell, I bought it. After all, every time I go to that noodle place, it’s always packed.
Header Image Source: Goodreads // Vintage