JUST when everyone hoped the queen of mommy porn, EL James, had exhausted herself, she emerges with yet another seductive book series — first, The Mister, and now (wait for it!) The Missus. When Fifty Shades of Grey appeared, a friend asked me if I had read it, mentioning a scandalous part involving a butt plug. I don't know if it was the red wine or my friend's Potchefstroom accent, but I spent months trying to work out how one has sex with a bathtub stopper.
The title Fifty Shades of Grey has been humorously altered: Fifty Shags of Grey, Fifty Shades of Shit, Getting Laid by Grey, and Fifty Shades of Shaft. Some people even believed the book was a DIY guide for paint techniques. Countless jokes were made about it. But James had the last laugh … all the way to the bank. Thirty-five million copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy have been sold, and it's not over yet. All three books have been turned into films, and I couldn't say whether they were any better than the books, as I find wrestling more erotic than sex scenes in movies.
The books and the films received predominantly poor reviews featuring words such as sexist, saccharine, cheesy, sleazy and seedy. The last for more than one reason. But everyone surely deserves a second chance. A powerful debut can't be held against a writer forever, right? That's why I decided to read The Missus. Millions of people can't be wrong, can they?
The Missus builds on the intrigue of The Mister. Maxim Trevelyan is an attractive (what else?) earl who inherited his title and fortune from his deceased brother. He saves his Albanian housekeeper, Alessia Demachi, from the clutches of human traffickers and falls in love with her. Alessia is a gifted pianist who “sees" music in colours, without the aid of hallucinogens. In an attempt to protect Alessia from her kidnappers and brutal ex-fiancé, her father and brother force Maxim to marry her at gunpoint. It's with this shotgun wedding that The Missus begins.
Mr and Mrs Trevelyan return to England where they must overcome many obstacles. Alessia is confronted by Maxim's status-conscious family and his reputation as a notorious London playboy. Will she ever be seen as the Countess of Trevethick, or will she always be Maxim's servant? Is she sophisticated enough for the London elite? You get the picture: an unoriginal storyline with stereotypical characters. Not even the sex scenes can salvage this lacklustre effort, as the eroticism in The Missus is as sexy as bread mould. One gets the impression that James's appetite for steamy scenes has waned and that she tosses sex into the mix simply because it sells books.
Maxim's macho inner monologues (in italics), during which he addresses himself as “dude", are just one of the many thorns in this reader's side — “Soon, dude, soon", “Don’t dwell, dude", “Dude, don’t get emotional," and so on, ad nauseam. After Alessia talks to her mother about her abduction and how she was almost raped, he ogles her “perfectly formed arse". You'd swear it's Maxim's “throbbing penis" doing the talking, not a sensitive man who has just learned that his future bride was almost assaulted.
One can only wonder how James gets away with blatant xenophobic expressions and sexist references to women. In The Missus, she portrays Albanian men across the board as aggressive drunks and filthy criminals. Alessia's mother is presented as crude: “Just because that man has had a bite of your cherry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wait until after you’re married!" Intolerable.
Alessia is a helpless being who can't manage anything and has never heard of credit cards. She refers to them as “magic cards", which is condescending on so many levels — definitely not endearing, as the writer clearly intended. Even though Alessia is now the lady of the house, she still feels compelled to serve Maxim: “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t cook and clean for you." Maxim is short-tempered, manipulative, undermining, and obsessed with sex, the type of man most women would avoid like a cockroach. But not Alessia. She goes down on her knees “[when] giving head", then proceeds to neatly make the bed. She knows her place.
It's not that I expect an erotic romance novel to be of outstanding literary quality; it's escapist, after all, meant to amuse and entertain. However, I do expect the basic rule of writing — “show, don't tell" — to be followed. James doesn't bother with that. Lengthy sections are no more than chunks of information, leaving little to the reader's imagination. There are overly detailed descriptions of Maxim's mansion that serve no purpose other than to bore the reader, and far too much time is devoted to the problems Maxim faces with his brother's estate. Perhaps James hoped her readers, as with her previous books, would hop from sex scene to sex scene and skip the rest.
The only glimmer of light in this miasma is when Alessia rebels against her bossy mother-in-law and decides to further her skills as a musician so she can be a “free woman". Then there is a wealth of music references in the text — from Beethoven and Debussy to JJ Cale and Roy Harper. But within the context of James's book, even good music has a kitschy tone.
Serious issues such as sexual exploitation and human trafficking should not be sugar-coated or Photoshopped. So, steer well clear of this book. If you already have it, use it as a fly swat.
Note to self: “What were you thinking, dude?”
♦ VWB ♦
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