With The Mister, E.L. James has done a great service to the romance novel, by demonstrating just how hard it is to write a good one.
The Mister follows the romance between Maxim Trevelyan, a rich young playboy Londoner recently elevated to an earldom after the death of his older brother, and Aleissa Demachi, the young Albanian immigrant who cleans his house. His “daily,” as the dictionary definition provided at the opening of the book helpfully explains. Despite a plot structure that recalls the 1914 film serial The Perils of Pauline, a melodrama whose heroine was in constant danger, there is no tension to The Mister, and it’s tension that makes a romance novel hum: The structure of the genre is to keep characters apart in convincing and creative ways, despite an ending that’s a foregone conclusion, until finally uniting them in a satisfying manner. Simple in theory; difficult in practice. The craft of the romance novel has been wholly obscured by narratives about how romances are nothing but formula fiction, and if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.
Aleissa has fled Albania and an arranged marriage with a brutish local man, only to fall into the hands of sex-traffickers, whom she escapes, before walking to the home of a Polish family friend, who sets her up with a job cleaning Maxim’s house, which is filthy, because he is a 26-year-old man with no appreciation for other people’s work, because he’s never had to work himself. He is immediately drawn to her; when the sex-traffickers try to kidnap her again, he spirits her away to his family estate in Cornwall. They inevitably fall in love.
Maxim and Aleissa are fundamentally poorly drawn characters. He is basically a pleasure-seeking wastrel, though he sometimes works as a male model, DJ, photographer, or composer. Here’s how Maxim’s first-person sections go: He has a thought; the thought distresses him; he reacts to his own thought, thinking: “Fuck.” At least three times, he thinks to himself: “Fuck a duck.”
I can imagine a scenario in which a posh sophisticate uses “fuck a duck” ironically, revealing a certain goofy whimsicality that undermines one’s initial assumptions about him. That could work because one of the central skills in romance writing is the precise command of irony. Characters aren’t who they appear on the surface; protagonists misread situations, while the reader is privy to the truth. Writers like Anne Stuart have built entire careers on the ability to so thoroughly convince the reader that this is happening that the protagonists barely need a big reveal at the end—they know it, and we know it, and we don’t need 50 pages saying it.
Unfortunately, that’s not what James is doing. She just inexplicably has her hero saying “fuck a duck.” It recalls Christian Grey and his penchant for “Laters, baby.” These men are fantasy figures for their immense sophistication—they share a taste for luxury sports cars and probably smell like high-end leather duffle bags
—but their dialogue is downright corny.
Aleissa is even worse in large part because her entire existence in the novel revolves around the fact that she is Maxim’s “daily.” James attempts to build out a fuller character by making Aleissa a genius pianist with synesthesia who has always loved reading English novels bequeathed to her by an English grandmother, but everything comes right back to the fact that Aleissa is (gasp!) Maxim’s daily. He keeps saying this, over and over.
She’s fucking exquisite, the still, small voice roars in my head. Yes. For a woman dressed in a nylon housecoat, she’s hot.
I frown. What am I doing. I’m fucking my daily. That’s what I’m doing.
I marvel at the day’s events. I’ve finally laid my daily.
I’ve fallen in love with my cleaner. Well, this is a fine fucking mess.
If The Mister is a Cinderella reboot then it’s done in the most literal way possible. It’s not enough that Aleissa is Maxim’s housecleaner; she’s narrowly escaped sex-traffickers and is now undocumented. James seems to be doing this as a form of consciousness-raising, but the narrative is so committed to sexualizing Aleissa’s vulnerability and powerlessness that the result is offensive. There’s definitely a strong 1980s British bonkbuster vibe to The Mister—Maxim’s benumbed but prolific sex life in the first 50 pages recalls the posh erotics of Jilly Cooper’s Riders. But much like the bumbling, cardigan-swathed Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic charge comes not just from her vulnerability but Maxim’s gentle handling, with his adoration and massive inherited wealth. James’s entire schtick is building structural inequalities between her characters into the fantasy itself, rather than to imagine two people enacting those fantasies together on an even playing ground, and it’s particularly off-putting in this scenario.
Aleissa evokes nothing so much as the heroines of the post-Rebecca era of romance, which was downright gothic. Daphne Du Maurier is explicitly referenced in the text of The Mister, and the “hero” is also named Maxim. This era, from roughly the 1950s through to the middle 1970s, leaned heavily on women working in men’s houses, whether as a companion or a nanny or perhaps a charity case wife. The men were often posh; they were however much more remote and mysterious than James’s Maxim, with his first-person narration. But none of them would ever, ever say “fuck a duck.”
Sometimes it reads like James missed the last 30 years of the romance novel, in which writers decisively distanced themselves from the Rebecca paradigm. The 1980s, in particular, saw a boom in contemporary-set stories by American writers. A central theme runs through them: American women were sick of reading ripoffs of Rebecca, featuring girls who were sweet and innocent to the point of seeming mealy-mouthed. To an extent, this was the impact of the women’s movement percolating into the culture, but it wasn’t just feminist critics who found these heroines too passive; in this era, the genre was rapidly populated by women who could hold their own with big tough icons of traditional American masculinity—cowboys and cops, for instance. The shrinking violets increasingly satisfied the tastes of neither feminist nor conservative women. The result was a flood of books that focused on women who, even when they were stuck in a mess of someone else’s making, were determinedly exercising whatever agency they could.
The Mister, despite having been written decades later, almost reads like that earlier generation of romances that revolved around the heroine’s lack of agency. Aleissa is made to endure and narratively she does little more than waits to be rescued by Maxim. It’s mystifying, as someone who’s been a romance reader her entire adult life, to see such a reversion. And yet it’s impossible to deny James’s success. Despite the debatability of whether James is even writing a romance novel, she is, as a matter of numbers, one of the most successful romance novelists in history.