It’s not just that The Mister is bad. It’s that it’s bad in ways that seem to cause the space-time continuum itself to wobble, slightly, as the words on the page rearrange themselves into kaleidoscopic fragments of repetition and product placement. There’s the simple conceit for the book: James has been compelled to write an erotic novel about a woman who’s been sex-trafficked. There are its gender dynamics, which assert, with the stuffiness of a 19th-century provost, that men can hump anything they please with gay abandon, while women should save themselves for their billionaire employers. (It’s not until page 401 of The Mister that Alessia musters the courage to look directly at Maxim’s penis, as if it’s a basilisk whose unfiltered gaze head-on will turn her to stone.)
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... 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.
The Mister sticks pretty closely to the Fifty Shades formula, albeit without the bondage. Where Christian Grey was a rich and self-loathing American with a grand piano and a terrible attitude towards women, Maxim Trevelyan is a rich and self-loathing English aristocrat with a grand piano and a terrible attitude towards women... a woman walks into his life who changes all that. Because do you know what Maxim finds really sexy? Someone who does his cleaning. When he first encounters the beautiful yet mysterious Alessia Demachi, she is wearing a nylon housecoat and has her hair tied up in a scarf. This may conjure an alarming image of Hilda Ogden, but fear not, because Alessia looks like a goddess. And she cleans like one. From here on in, The Mister reads like a soft porn version of How Clean Is Your House.
Fifty Shades readers will enjoy ticking off familiar friends, from the plot – over which we shall draw a veil – to the (inevitably virginal) heroine’s borderline anorexic refusal to eat, general lack of technical knowledge, and the hero’s penis “stirring in agreement”, like Paul Hollywood approving a particularly good sponge... The Mister – the name! So terrible, like a hydration spray – will sell a gazillion copies, but at least it does it with good messages at the heart of it.