There is a small moment in EL James’s new novel The Mister that embodies her unique ability for libido-shrinking creepiness. Her new romantic hero, British aristocrat Maxim Trevelyan, enters a shop to buy a nightlight for his attractive, sex-trafficked Albanian cleaner Alessia. While paying for the dragon-shaped light intended for children, he spots condoms behind the counter. “Well,” he thinks, glancing at his traumatised future paramour before asking for a box, “I might get lucky.” Later offering to share his bed, he says: “I won’t touch you. This is just sleep – so the next time you scream, I’ll be right there.’” He then thinks: “Of course, I’d like to make her scream in a different way.”
At least among all this wrongness, James gets one thing right: her randy English earl has a believably stupid name. But Maximum Tinseltrousers is no Jacob Rees-Mogg with a collection of spreader bars. After having made her name with leatherbound rumpy pumpy in her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, The Mister is James’s goodbye to BDSM, and hello to what looks like a long career of writing retrograde romances between powerful men and uncomfortably vulnerable women.
Replacing predatory tycoon Christian Grey in her first post-Grey novel is Trevelyan, also known as Lord Trevethick, an earl-cum-photographer-cum-model-cum-DJ who does a lot of one of those because his brother died and he needs to have sex about it. At one point, Milord Tremulous broods: “I’ve just inherited a vast estate in Cornwall, an estate in Oxfordshire, another in Northumberland and a small portion of London – but at what cost?” Dunno mate, but you’ve got accountants for that.
And instead of teenage virgin Anastasia Steele, we have 23-year-old Albanian Alessia Demachi, who has been trafficked into Britain and has ended up a cleaner in Trevelyan’s palatial home on Chelsea Embankment. She has no passport or power, but does possess an abusive father, an abusive ex-fiance, two angry sex-traffickers on her tail, and most importantly, her virginity. (Not for long.) Where cinema gave us the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, James introduces us to the Magical Poor Dream Immigrant: an ethereal and exotic foreigner who can woo us with their cute grasp of English (Alessia calls smartphones “clever phones”) and their outstanding, natural intellectual talents (Alessia is a piano-playing savant and chess grandmaster with synaesthesia, because of course she is).
The Mister is a romance for Brexit Britain, a coked-up toff reaching out across the class divide to help a poverty-stricken migrant find a home – though when they finally do get married, the Home Office doesn’t whisk Alessia off for daring to wear pyjamas in bed.
It also has more red flags than a communist parade. There is a complete dearth of emotional maturity that is genuinely unsettling. After learning Alessia was trafficked, Trevelyan thinks, “I still want her and don’t my blue balls know it.” Nor has James lost her retrograde approach to gender and sex. Alessia remains so offensively dainty that, after days of nonstop bonking, she squirms at the idea of performing one lousy handjob. And there is an erratic veering between sexual bravado and flowery schmaltz that only serves to confuse the two. Trevelyan goes from referring to one woman as “some nameless fuck”, to dreaming about “bedding” Alessia within a few pages.
As was the case with Fifty Shades, The Mister is 500-odd pages of psychodrama, in which you can sense James is less about the slap and tickle and more about the orgy of consumerism. Just as James writes sex like a 14-year-old who thinks they know how it is done (“‘Kiss me,’ she growls, her voice low and demanding. She runs her tongue over her top teeth and my body responds, my groin tightening”), she also writes about wealth like she’s not the author of a trilogy that has sold millions. Trevelyan doesn’t just have a fast car, he drives an F-type Jag. He doesn’t just have speakers, he owns a Sonos system. His bubblebath isn’t just bubblebath, it is Jo Malone bubblebath. In one scene, he even orders a double Negroni in a bar, which is definitely not a thing, but clearly something James believes sophisticated men would like.
Under the sticky veneer of all that adventurous bonking, James has always been a conservative writer, of traditional romances between men who are manly and women who are womanly, where a genuine cliffhanger at the end of a chapter can be the declaration of love. All that is backwards in The Mister is neither a surprise nor even James’s fault; after all, we’ve been encouraging her. But that a book like The Mister will still end up on the bestseller chart next week begets so many questions. Just how underserved are the women who enjoy culture like this, if this is the best we can do? Is this real life? Is it just fantasy? I’m unsure which bothers me more.
Source: The Guardian