By Dana Schwartz
April 16, 2019 at 08:00 AM EDT

The Mister

  • Book

Thanks to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, E.L. James has become synonymous with generically titillating BDSM, a style that could be described as “domination for beginners.” That the author has written a new book called The Mister should give anyone familiar with her work a pretty clear idea of what to expect from it — and indeed, it initially feels consistent with James’ oeuvre. Like Christian Grey, our new protagonist Maxim Trevelyan is a wealthy and handsome young English playboy who plays piano and likes driving fast cars, and who’s never found love in his pattern of meaningless sex — at least not until meeting Alessia, his beautiful, 23-year-old housecleaner.

But let me warn you now: Whatever you think this book is, you are absolutely wrong.

To get the big question out of the way: There are no elements of BDSM in this book. (If you must know, the couple never engage in anything kinkier than Maxim taking Alessia from behind.) Instead, The Mister is E.L. James’ version of a straightforward romance. And where there are some genuinely fun moments in the Fifty Shades of Grey series — say, Christian broodingly saying, “Because I’m fifty shades of f—ed-up” — The Mister is unoriginal and dull from the syntax up.

Credit: Vintage

It lacks even the vicarious, silly fun of the Fifty Shades world. Whereas Anastasia Steele was your typical, stunningly beautiful recent college grad who’d never had sex and didn’t own a computer for some reason, our new heroine, Alessia Demachi, is an Albanian immigrant, working illegally in England after escaping from would-be sex traffickers. Here are Alessia’s defining characteristics: She is a piano prodigy, chess master, and although she attended university in Albania to become an English teacher, she’s still befuddled by new words and speaks in the “charming” broken English of a helpless nubile sex-doll to be. (Think words like “muchly” and calling smartphones “clever phones.”)

Alessia’s English level and her understanding of Western culture also seems to shift at random, depending on the scene. In one moment, Alessia lets Maxim know that she knows about American culture because her family had Netflix and HBO. Then, she delights him with her childlike wonder at seeing the sea for the first time because her family was too poor to ever go to the beach. (Who can afford two premium-cable subscriptions but not a beach day?) This contradictory depiction of Alessia is unbalanced and fundamentally inaccurate, reinforcing infantilizing clichés about Eastern European women. As for the Albanian men in the novel: They’re all Neanderthalic thugs who are either kidnapping Alessia (something that happens multiple times) or selling her off in marriage to another kidnapper.

If its portrayal of Balkans culture seems heavy-handed, The Mister deals with the trauma of sex trafficking with the delicacy of a freight train. Alessia wakes up screaming in the middle of the night because the darkness in her bedroom — or rather, the bedroom in one of Maxim’s other properties, where they’re out escaping from some kidnappers — reminds her of the darkness in the truck she was thrown into while she was being sex-trafficked. Maxim invites her to come into his bed: “’I won’t touch you. This is just sleep — so the next time you scream, I’ll be right there.’” He then narrates: “Of course, I’d like to make her scream in a different way.

In the context of a Fifty Shades, that sort of terrible writing could generously be characterized as fun camp; in the context of the PTSD of sex trafficking, it’s merely horrific. The sex scenes, further, are rife with lukewarm recycled clichés and vagueness (“She tastes of warmth and grace and sweet seduction”), and what’s meant to pass for yearning is often just lazy lists of body parts:

She thinks of him as her body builds.
His face.
His back.
His long legs.
She climbs further.
His taut behind.
His flat stomach.
She groans as she comes, and, exhausted, she falls asleep.
Only to dream of him.

The narrative shifts rapidly between the perspectives of Maxim and Alessia — the former’s is written in the first person, the latter’s in close-third — at times multiple times on a single page. It’s all pointlessly dizzying, especially since The Mister is over 500 pages. Is this book meant to offer wish-fulfillment for some readers? Perhaps: Maxim is rich, and he’s British (though this book’s “Britishness” is just a scattered “bloody!” or “bollocks!”), and he’s an Earl. But he’s also — I kid you not — a model-slash-DJ-slash-photographer. And one who happens to be irredeemably shallow and kind of a dick. We meet him sleeping with his dead brother’s wife less than a week after his brother’s funeral, but he’s still recalling the woman he bedded the night before: “Who was it last time? Jojo? Jeanne? Jody? Whatever. She was some nameless f— who moaned a great deal both in and out of bed.” Maybe certain (male) readers will be intrigued by Alessia, a submissive virgin who only wants to cook and clean and play piano and expresses nothing but gratitude. But for me, a woman attracted to men, that guy is supposed to be the ultimate object of my sexual fantasies? In that respect, The Mister truly fails. Because he doesn’t come close. F

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The Mister

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  • E L James