I should have known better. We all should have known better. After living through the fantastically disappointing Fifty Shades trilogy, having consumed each novel (and film, don’t lie) with a side order of "This isn’t at all what I thought it would be", we should’ve had a clearer idea of what to expect from the romance novel that came next.
The Mister is not a continuation of Christian Grey’s fleetingly racy, frequently superfluous exploits. No, this is completely separate. E.L. James' first literary venture beyond Grey’s world, this one is about an achingly rich and privileged bloke – late 20s, white, tall, muscular – who takes an "unexpected" (it’s not unexpected) shine to a wide-eyed, innocent and inexperienced younger woman. Oh, wait…
Take a moment to shake off the déjà vu but don’t bother dusting off the adjustable nipple clamps just yet. One of the key differences is that The Mister is far less BDSM and instead takes place here in the UK. Our protagonist is Lord Maxim Trevelyan, an earl with hefty estates in Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Northumberland "and a small portion of London". He lives on London’s Chelsea Embankment in a swish, modern flat with impressive views across the Thames – views that are painstakingly noted by the various women he brings back to sleep with. You see, his older brother has just died and has left him the responsibility of the family’s wealth. He’s always been a bit of a fuck boy but at the moment he’s fucking around to avoid the reality of his duties and his grief.
"Mindless sex – there’s a lot to be said for it," is Maxim’s opening line to us. And don’t worry, I judged him straightaway too. It’s justified. "It’s strange how some women behave the morning after: shy and quiet. She’s no longer the lascivious, demanding siren of the night before," he observes a chapter or two later.
There’s one woman in particular who he struggles to understand – his new cleaner, Alessia. She arrived unannounced after the surprise departure of his previous "daily" (an old-fashioned term for a housemaid who visits every day. James dutifully pops the definition at the very beginning of the novel, perhaps to warn us of its wildly excessive usage throughout). Brace yourself: Alessia has a harrowing back story that saw her being trafficked to the UK before eventually escaping and landing a job ironing Maxim’s shirts and emptying the used condoms from the bin in his bedroom. We don’t hear nearly enough about this, of course. This is merely a troubling plot device that pops Alessia in an even more vulnerable position before dancing an awkward tango with the next man who’s funding her existence.
Dark, yes, but it doesn’t get deeper. It only gets more annoying. Most annoying of all is how unsexy this very convoluted romance manages to be. Hats off, though. It proved ironically consuming for someone (me) who probably wouldn’t have been able to swallow the blurb, let alone the reality of the narrative. But sadly, no, it was hot. Allow me to tell you a little bit more about why…
There's a lot of lip licking
It really gets Maxim going when Alessia, the nervous 23-year-old who has recently arrived in the UK from Albania, licks her lips. Speaking from misguided experience, though I totally understand the aesthetic appeal of someone’s tongue slowly sliding across their lips, it’s never quite how it sounds, is it? That moist (erm, slobbery) upper lip can only do so much in the real world. In The Mister’s world, it makes Maxim hard in a heartbeat.
Maxim's class-rooted arrogance
Nothing quite turns a girl off like the unwarranted fetishisation of a class, race or gender, you know? To set the scene: There’s a poignant bit quite early on in the book where we learn that, besides being an earl, Maxim also DJs on the side (classic) and models when he has the time. "Modelling could be mind-numbingly boring but after I was sent down from Oxford, the work had gotten me out of bed and given me an excuse to stay in shape. I also got to meet hot, skinny women."
His surprise at falling for one of his subordinates is a real kicker, though. "Who would have thought," he muses. Alessia arrives to clean his flat after walking through the pissing rain, so he takes it upon himself to give her an umbrella, to which she modestly says thank you. "I wonder what her life must be like that she’s so grateful for such a simple gesture." Her thanks is enough to have him ready to blow because "he’s not accustomed to doing good deeds". After spending literal days thinking about this specific interaction, he reasons that "it might confirm the shallow fucking bastard I think I am" and I concur.
Maxim's response to Alessia's past
It’s sex. But for his gratification, not hers. "I still want her and don’t my blue balls know it," is Maxim’s response to finding out that she was trafficked. Understandably, Alessia suffers awful nightmares and "screams in terror" at the memory of how she had a black plastic bag put over her head when she was brought here, to which Maxim thinks smirkingly: "Of course, I’d like to make her scream in a different way." It's painful and uncomfortable to read. Questionable enough, perhaps, to make a woman who's spent so much of her life trying to avoid abusive men only to be sex trafficked into the arms of the worst example of British gentry, such a poignant and almost inconsequential part of the narrative.
Maxim's blue balls
Christ, this guy is always on the brink. We've all been turned on at the most unexpected of times but so much of the book is spent having to hear about him salivating over the memory of weak exchanges between himself and Alessia. When they do eventually hook up, her moaning is described as "music to my dick" and it's here, friends, that I realised I'll never be able to use the otherwise innocent idiom "music to my ears" without being diverted into thinking about this guy's trite, money-pissing penis.