E.L. James, the author of 50 Shades Of Grey, has a new book called The Mister. It's about a sexy English playboy and his affair with a traumatized sex-trafficked Albanian maid who keeps getting kidnapped.
Much of the criticism of 50 Shades was "Tee-hee, this middle-aged woman is writing about sex, and other middle-aged women are enjoying it!" But it was also often pointed out that the supposed love story featured classic signs of domestic abuse. The Mister tries to dodge that problem, but it dodges right into oncoming traffic. Let's run through 15 key moments.
The main character is the amazingly named Maxim Trevelyan, Earl of Trevethick, and he is a Sad Boy. His brother has suddenly died, and he is coping with his grief by having sex with his brother's widow. "f*****g keeps me fit," he narrates, not understanding exercise, "and in the throes of passion I learn all I need to know about a woman." What has he learned about Caroline, his sister-in-law? That she cries after orgasm. Because of, you know, the widowing.
You can see the fantasy that's going to unfold here, that the callous bad boy learns to open his heart, but we've already overshot to a point of absurdity. Besides, any character named Trevelyan is just killing time until Pierce Brosnan kicks them off a radio antenna.
Sensual Quote: "We'd almost danced the dance so many times, but that night I resigned myself to fate, and with an unerring inevitably I fucked my brother's wife."
Alessia Demachi is Maxim's new maid -- or new "daily," as the book awkwardly insists on putting it. She's from rural Albania, and to James this means she's a skittish 17th-century waif. Smartphones are magical to her, as are showers and the range of food available at gas stations. She's baffled by modern music, credit cards, and seat belts, and she *gasp* has never seen a naked man.
She calls Maxim "The Mister," speaking and even thinking in broken English, to the point where you expect her to declare "I am appreciating the sex orgasm." This is despite it repeatedly being said that she speaks English well because her impoverished family had Netflix and HBO. She's also a piano prodigy and obsessed with Maxim's piano, because playing it when he's out is her one solace from her ... dark secret.
Sensual Quote: "At home we have an old computer but no games consoles and clever phones."
Alessia witnesses Maxim drink and f**k his way through his grief, leaving piles of empty bottles around after endless one-night stands. Maxim's mad at his brother for leaving him with a noble title and the family businesses, meaning that we're supposed to sympathize with the relatable depression of inheriting a massive commercial empire that comes with a few basic responsibilities.
But our alcoholic nymphomaniac hero burdened with the terrible duty of signing some paperwork still has time to be an accomplished composer, photographer, model, and DJ, while also maintaining peak physical fitness through his intense gym routine, elite fencing duels, and long-distance runs. This novel is ostensibly an erotic fantasy, but the most outlandish fantasy is Maxim's impossible time management skills.
Sensual Quote: "An image like a forgotten dream develops like a Polaroid in my memory."
Alessia is attracted to Maxim because he's hot, while Maxim is attracted to Alessia because in a world where every random barista all but strips naked at the sight of him, he's intrigued by her shyness. Maxim first takes note of her when she cleans his piano, but James heroically makes the sexy maid fantasy boring with lines like "I pretend to read the revised cost-to-complete for the remodeling of the Mayfair mansion blocks, but really I'm watching her." You can start masturbating now, if you haven't already.
Sensual Quote: "Could this be any more illicit?"
Alessia thinks there's more to Maxim than his sullen playboy persona, which is why she's happy whenever she doesn't find a used condom in his morning garbage. She's even happier when he demonstrates his incredible kindness by letting her borrow an umbrella. No Albanian man would ever do this for her, apparently, because James writes Eastern European culture like she learned about it from Nazi propaganda.
This borrowed umbrella is a major turning point, as Maxim congratulates himself for not thinking of yet another woman as a disposable sex object. Alessia even references it hundreds of pages later. That's right ladies, The Mister is about the fantasy of finding a man who won't force you to get drenched as your walk back to your hovel after cleaning his multi-million-dollar home.
Sensual Quote: "I bask and glow in the wake of Alessia's whispered 'Thank you.'"
One of the biggest criticisms of 50 Shades concerned the endless emails and texts between the characters. James, to her credit, massively cut down on them here. But Caroline, the sister-in-law, expresses concern that she'll lose her fortune with this text message:
It's implied that this is hugely important. Will Caroline somehow stab Maxim in the back to get the land and money he inherited from his brother? This plot point, like many, eventually goes nowhere, but it's impossible to even take seriously to begin with. If James wrote Julius Caesar, Brutus would send a note that reads "Hey Jules, you're a real cut above the rest! ;)"
Sensual Quote: "I'm not pregnant. :'( I have nothing of Kit's."
The literal moment our leads give into their supposed attraction and kiss, two thugs show up and demand that Maxim hand over Alessia. Her big secret is that she illegally immigrated to London to escape a terrible home life, but fell into the hands of Albanian gangsters intent on forcing her into prostitution.
It's possible to tell a love story starring a sex trafficking victim, but James is the least-appropriate writer imaginable for the task. It's difficult to balance the highs of a passionate newfound love with the lows of trauma and abuse, and James has Alessia recount peeing in a bucket in a dark van with unbridled horror, because the actual stories of real sex trafficking victims would kill your libido for weeks. It's a plot twist by someone whose ambition wildly outpaces their self-awareness, like if the next Fast & Furious movie devoted a subplot to The Rock learning to treat his bipolar disorder.
Sensual Quote: "I hiss with the authority that comes from a life of privilege and several years at one of the best public schools in Britain."
The couple escapes to Maxim's country manor, where they promptly ignore the threat of angry sex traffickers to fart around a seaside resort for nearly 300 pages. But Alessia's experiences do give her nightmares, so Maxim, now the portrait of a gentleman, buys her a child's nightlight ... while also buying condoms in case he gets lucky. There's some ostensible suspense over whether they'll put aside their social differences and follow up their earlier kiss, but Alessia's trauma is just a footnote to all that. This incredibly leads to scene in which Maxim comforts a screaming Alessia while thinking, "I'd like to make her scream in a different way."
Yes, that actually happens.
James got a lot of flak for botching consent in 50 Shades, and Maxim does explicitly ask for it here, but he also has to plug in a nightlight so the traumatized woman whose virginity he just took won't wake up in sheer panic. There's a sliiight power disparity between a rich sexual obsessive and a naive undocumented immigrant who's worried about being thrown out of the country and/or getting raped at any moment. The bouts of trauma are treated like a headache; if they're preventing sex now, just check back in an hour and it'll probably be fine.
Sensual Quote: "I've finally laid my daily."
Our dream couple's idyllic beach getaway is interrupted by news that Maxim's London apartment has been burgled. This is the same apartment that was recently visited by gangsters looking to seize Alessia, so how does Maxim react to this worrying news?
"What a f*****g pain in the arse this is -- some f*****g lowlife addict or maybe some feral teenage kids wrecking my place. f**k. A. Duck."
Maxim, whose inability to put two and two together would drive fellow noble Count von Count to suicide, leaves Alessia alone to personally deal with this trifling bother that his several dozen employees could easily address for him. The villains of course use info they found in his apartment to locate Alessia and slap her around, although Maxim somehow manages to teleport back and subdue them with a shotgun before they can steal her away. It's like if halfway through Taken, Liam Neeson forgot why everyone was trying to shoot him.
Sensual Quote: "'How the hell did they find us? How? Maybe they were the fuckers who burgled my flat.'"
In an incredible display of forcing a plot point, Maxim has been keeping his status in the aristocracy secret from Alessia, for reasons that even the character is unsure of. But after the gangster attack, Alessia discovers that he is not in fact an improbably rich composer, as she originally and very stupidly assumed. She then leaps to the conclusion that the man who whisked her away to safety and risked his life to save hers was only using her for sex, because everyone in this book has a moldy sponge for a brain. A conversation with Maxim about his romantic intentions immediately renders this whole arc pointless. But then ...
Sensual Quote: "As far as Alessia knows, there is no aristocracy in her country."
Already reeling from a sudden burst of the obvious, Alessia is further blindsided by the arrival of Anatoli, an abusive man whom her equally abusive father arranged for her to marry, and who, like any great villain, is only introduced when the book is already 80% over.
Worried that he'll kill Maxim, Alessia agrees to return to Albania with him, leaving only a vague note while Maxim is out addressing a rogue plot point. It's an exhausting redundancy, because this rich businessman has the exact same generic evil personality as the sex traffickers. It's never explained why he's so obsessed with Alessia, who has all the personality of a paper doll with "Female Lead" scrawled on it, or how the father of a family that (aside from their HBO subscription) is presented as envying the Great Depression was able to arrange a marriage with him to begin with.
Sensual Quote: "'H-h-h-hello, Anatoli,' she stutters, her voice shaky and full of fear."
A good romantic drama needs a credible conflict to sow doubt over whether this once-in-a-lifetime love is truly meant to be. And so, as Anatoli is forcing Alessia into his car to return to a life of endless abuse, Alessia happens to get a glimpse of Maxim hugging another female character on the street, and she immediately concludes that their torrid love affair was nothing but a lie, even though he just finished convincing her that he truly loves her.
She considers suicide not long after, while Maxim resolves to follow them and win Alessia back with a marriage proposal. Some might consider this attempt to up the stakes to be total nonsense, but I think James is onto something. Can a walking penis ever truly love a woman who's suffered 17 concussions?
Sensual Quote: "And now they are hugging in the street and he's holding her. The betrayal is swift and cruel, slicing Alessia into tiny pieces and shattering her faith in herself-and in him. Him. Her Mister."
While Anatoli is slapping Alessia around, locking her in the trunk of a car, and even threatening to rape her, James insists on also showing us what Maxim is up to as he drives from London to Albania in exhaustive detail. But because he doesn't realize just how bad Anatoli is, what's supposed to be the climactic chase features Maxim taking his time to chat with his friends in swanky hotel bars and regret not bringing his camera to capture the landscape.
In one incredible scene, Alessia steals a sleeping Anatoli's gun, considers killing him, considers killing herself, then suffers a severe emotional breakdown, after which we cut to Maxim strolling through Albania's National History Museum, as if he's taking the afternoon off from stopping an ongoing sexual assault.
Sensual Quote: "I distract myself by snapping numerous photographs and posting the odd one online. I get told off twice, but I ignore the officials and continue to take photographs surreptitiously."
James claimed that she extensively researched Albania, to which an Albanian ambassador replied "Uh, no, you very obviously didn't." I can confirm, however, that she skimmed an Albanian dictionary, because Alessia's internal dialogue contains lines like "He's naked! Lakruiq!" and "Sister-in-law. Kunata." Which translate to "He's naked! He's naked!" and "Sister-in-law. Sister-in-law." But the compelling cultural education doesn't stop there.
Albania, like any country, is far too complicated to summarize. It does struggle with human trafficking and institutional sexism, but it's also generally well-developed. James, however, portrays Albania as if the Cold War ended last week, and that gave a land of savage men exciting new ways to oppress every last woman. Everyone is either a cruel idiot or longs to live in the superior West.
James apparently realized that slandering an entire nation as a hellish dystopia was a problem, but solved it in the laziest ways imaginable. Maxim is constantly impressed that Albanian hotels are fit for humans, the girlfriend of Maxim's translator joins the rescue mission solely to spout "#NotAllAlbanianMen," and after spending most of the book trashing Alessia's hometown of Kukes, the story grinds to a halt so we can learn how the town was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for taking in Kosovan refugees. In what I'm sure is just a staggering coincidence, that is the most notable fact on the town's otherwise-brief Wikipedia page.
Sensual Quote: "Goats free, goats tethered -- this is Alessia's country."
So how do you solve the problem of an abusive fiance and an abusive father in an abusive country? Well, everyone gathers in Alessia's family home, and Alessia tells a lie about Maxim getting her pregnant. There's a lot of yelling, and what's supposed to be the big showdown drags on forever because James insists on explaining that Maxim's translator is indeed translating every single line.
An enraged Anatoli tries to shoot everyone, fails, and leaves, but not before ominously threatening a sequel. Then an equally enraged dad points his shotgun at Maxim and demands that he immediately marry his daughter. That's how James dismantles this cruel patriarchal system -- the abusive father makes a violent demand that our heroes happen to be OK with. Oh, and despite knowing each other for less than a month, our engaged couple has to frantically produce a pregnancy to maintain their desperate lie. Will Anatoli kidnap their child in the sequel, prompting a rescue that somehow comes in the form of a luxury cruise? You'll have to get someone else to find out.
Sensual Quote: "'What are you going to do, Anatoli?' She jabs her index finger at him. 'Shoot him or me?' Thanas translates."
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I-is this ... representation?
Innocent until proven guilty ... but imprisoned even after innocence is proven.