The author of Fifty Shades of Grey is back, with more unintentionally hilarious catchphrases and “linguistically bankrupt fondling of a clitoris”.
The Mister opens with an extremely important piece of translation – the difference between the word “daily” in US vernacular (a newspaper published every day but Sunday) and UK parlance (a woman who is employed to clean someone’s house on a regular basis).
With this on the first page, you don’t have to be the savviest reader to suspect that Alessia, a doe-eyed, long-haired Albanian cleaner with a headscarf and large pink panties that come to feature prominently in later exposition, is going to be the subject of plenty of very obvious jokes about “daily fucking”. In this, the reader is not disappointed.
The only good thing to be said about EL James’ first exploration away from vampiric fan-fiction and into erotic fiction of her own imagining is that she has no creativity whatsoever, and so, most of the time, you can pretend you’re reading something written by someone else. In a predictable, paint-by-numbers plot, The Mister meets a mistress and exactly what you’d expect comes to pass. While the likes of Catherine Cookson and Jackie Collins would never sink so low as to give their green-eyed, heavily-muscled, sex-addled protagonist the catchphrase “Fuck a duck!”, they would certainly write him into the story EL James has created: that of an errant younger son thrust suddenly into family responsibility as Lord Trevethick upon the death of his better-loved brother, Kit, finding redemption in the virginal vagina of Alessia, a sex-trafficked runaway with a passion for Beethoven and Jo Malone bath products.
The novel opens with Maxim (somewhere, Daphne du Maurier is turning sensuously in her grave) fucking his dead brother’s wife. Caroline, who returns periodically throughout the novel, usually in the form of text messages studded with emojis and passive aggression, is his best friend, and the woman who took his virginity, then shacked up with his better-looking titled brother. Kit has been dead for 13 days.
“She likes it. I like it, and it’s what I do best, fucking some eager attractive woman into the small hours of the morning. It’s my favourite recreational activity and gives me something to do – someone to do. Fucking keeps me fit, and in the throes of passion I learn all I need to know about a woman – how to make her sweat and if she screams or cries when she comes. Caroline is a crier. Caroline has just lost her husband. Shit.”
Before coked-up party boy Maxim narrows his focus on Alessia, we get a good 50 pages of him fucking around, ensuring that EL James gets to flex her pelvic floor muscles around sexually confident women before settling back into her preferred inexperienced virgin niche. Maxim is struggling with his new responsibilities as an Earl, having previously enjoyed life as a composerphotographerDJmodel, and is taking out his frustrations and grief on the lusty women of West London, one of whom informs him that she is a human rights lawyer and that her safe word is “Chelsea”, before submitting to a thorough blind-folded pounding. No punches are pulled in the physical descriptions of our sad-but-sexy protagonist, whose “long muscular legs”, “sun-kissed back” and “brilliant green eyes” are painted again and again, each time more lovingly.
At some points during the sex scenes, which span multiple pages and happen with a regularity that seems almost algorithmically predetermined, I couldn’t help but pause and wonder if EL James might one day be revealed to be the fabrication of some famous feminist author (Hilary Mantel, is that you?), setting out to prove that financial success in literature penned by a woman can only be found in the elaborately teased-out (and linguistically bankrupt) fondling of a clitoris. Some of the lines pile ridiculousness on top of what seems like physical impossibility in such sweaty, oozing, exhausting heaps that belief in the arousal of the couple coupling begins to feel like it’s simply asking too much of the reader.
“To make amends I run my teeth along her jawline up to her ear. Her moan is soft and husky as her head falls into the palm of my hand. It’s music to my dick.”
James takes her dick music in a new direction in this novel by alternately occupying the inner monologue of both Alessia and Maxim, giving us a window into the minds of the two characters. Unfortunately, the main effect of this is to make us read each inane experience or overly explicit sex scene twice, though we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at least this means we won’t be subjected to the exact same novel written twice from the two points of view, as occurred with Fifty Shades of Grey, and Grey. It’s a relief to find that Alessia doesn’t converse with her inner goddess as much as Anastasia liked to, though it’s slightly startling to have her monologues interjected with random Albanian words, presumably to remind us that she’s foreign, just in case we’ve forgotten. Zot!
Alessia as a character is a cut and paste of Anastasia, the object of Christian Grey’s angry, arrogant desires in the Fifty Shades trilogy. Physically, she’s the very spit, from the dainty figure to the large innocent eyes to the inexplicable habit of biting her upper lip with her bottom teeth. She’s similarly nervous and daunted by the riches of her paramour, though James has generously imbued her with “sensuous grace” rather than the clumsiness that made Ana so endearing to Grey. And, critically, she’s a 23-year-old virgin. That she speaks in broken English presumably only gives James the excuse she’s never appeared to need before to repeat the same tired dialogue scene after scene (though it doesn’t prevent Alessia from effortlessly understanding increasingly complex vocabulary later on in the novel).
The Mister is repetitive and misogynistic, written to a tired formula by a woman who had already given away her lack of creativity by rising to fame on the back of someone else’s success in the first place. Throughout the novel, there are hints that something interesting might happen (Kit might have committed suicide, the sex-traffickers might return, Alessia’s aggressive Albanian betrothed might turn out to have more than one personality trait) but each hint of interest is quickly revealed to be nothing more than an accident of language, and the novel follows its predictable course to Maxim down on his knees (proposal, followed by cunnilingus).
It’s a tame 512 pages long, but could have been sliced by two thirds, had James’ editor not indulged the author’s habit for saying everything three times in succession, either in the exact same wording, or very slightly varied.
“She glances at the piano, feeling cheated. Today was the day she was going to play. She didn’t have the nerve on Monday, and she longs to play. Today would have been the first time!”
Of course, James famously resists any attempts to edit her work, presumably confident in her ability to make millions off bathtub sex scenes interspersed with achingly inane conversations, and to her credit, she’s usually right.
Still, The Mister is set in London on the banks of the Thames, and this London-based reviewer has neither heard nor read any hint of interest in the new novel by the author made famous by sex scenes in which violent tampon removal is coloured as erotic. Perhaps I’m not the target audience, being blessed with the ability to remove my own tampons, but it does seem like the world might have lost its lust for the formula which was thoroughly tired by the close of Fifty Shades Darker. True EL James fans will be devastated by the lack of blowjobs, BDSM and bindings and anyone who reads literature with an interest in character, originality, plot or even masturbatory materials should steer clear. Read some good Jane Eyre fan fiction instead. Actually, read just about anything at all instead.
The Mister, by EL James (Arrow, $24) will soon be available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.