The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

It’s one of those while-away-the-winter-evening type books. Historically engaging, with the power to suck one right in, this huge, 1,000 page book was a novel I had trouble putting down for anyone.

And when I did have to put it down, I got annoyed

It’s also a mini-series on the BBC. I haven’t seen it yet. I have no opinion over reading the book first or whatever, but I’ve heard the book is better. And that’s as good a place to start as any. The book might be better for a number of reasons.

Remember that review of Cold Mountain I did? Where I rambled on about writers who write in a different style? Michel Faber does that here. At first, you aren’t sure who the narrator might be. Then, it dawns on you that he is acting as the narrator – has put you in the story – and is leading you by the hand through the back alleys of 19th century London. He continues to do this throughout the book and it is beautiful to behold.
Just when you get sucked in to the story, he jerks you back out and reminds you that HE controls what you will read next and which character you will be watching for the next chapter or so. It is so interesting.

The characters are rich and well-developed. Basically, it begins with the story of William Rackham, the cut-off son of a millionaire. He’s cut off because he wants to be a writer and doesn’t want to take over the family business of making soap. Gradually, you learn his wife is more than a little delicate and screwy. Gradually, you learn he is dissatisfied and conflicted about his choices in life – then he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a whore. Not only that, but she is the sort of whore who will do anything you ask. The author doesn’t go into too much detail with this, but imagine the most foul, kinkiest, weirdest sex act you have ever heard of…got it? (Ew.) And yes, Sugar will do it. For a fee.
Apparently, in 19th century London, these kind of prostitutes are few and far between, so Sugar makes a ton of money and is very, very popular. Those kinky Brits.

You learn that her mother is the Madam of the house. You learn that her mother basically forced her own daughter into prostitution at the very young age of 13 – which even then – for prostitutes – was kinda’ horrifying. Sugar is clever, self-educated, writing a horror novel – where she systematically tortures and murders her customers – and has a weird skin condition. William Rackham meets her and they begin an affair. Well. An affair in the sense that William falls in love with her and she becomes his exclusive mistress. Eventually, he sets her up with bank accounts and her own house – and in order to keep her – he goes back into the family business.

Sugar, after the daily variety, and somewhat family atmosphere of the whorehouse, becomes lonely and bored with nothing to do all day but wait for William to visit her. She also starts obsessing over losing him, and begins following him in secret and watching him with his wife.

His wife, Agnes, is one weird lady. At first, you are not sure what the deal is with her. She has fainting fits and makes a lot of references to having been ill the previous ‘season’. As she gets worse and worse, you find out she is suffering from a tumor in her head and because of it, we think, she is religious fanatic. She keeps seeing Sugar spying on them – and so begins to think that Sugar is her guardian angel – watching over her.

Meanwhile, William is bogged down with business troubles and oh did I mention he and Agnes have a little girl? Well, they do. A very neglected daughter. At this point you can kind of see where the story is going, right? Sugar offers to become the child’s governess – and by doing so gets herself into the house.

Veer off! William has a brother, Henry, whom is training for the church. He is the favorite son, but has never had any interest in business and so his father was forced to pass it on to William. Henry is a lovable character. He’s secretly in love with a widow – the other rather likable character – strong-minded reformer of street hookers – Emmeline. Henry is platonic friends with her – and all conflicted about lusts – and you just root for him to do something out of character like go sleep with a prostitute or go off and hunt big game in Africa or colonize India – or whatever it is men did in the 19th century – but he doesn’t – not really. And when he finally DOES – it totally sucks.

I’m leaving you hanging there. So Sugar moves in – and becomes the little girl’s governess. Because of this, she goes from this very guarded, bitter woman – writing a murderous revenge novel – and morphs into a motherly figure for the child. She manages to heal her pain – and evolves emotionally in ways that William does not.
Agnes – on the other hand – gets crazier and crazier. She goes from barely functional to catatonic. You feel sorry for her and want her out of the way at the same time. William turns into a total ass and you basically want to smack him upside the head. It’s only in the very last few pages that I have any sympathy for him at all.
And the whole book ends up reminding me of Jane Eyre, but without the nice ending. Actually, the ending leaves us hanging. I get the feeling Michel Faber might write a sequel.

He’s already written a sort of prequel, called The Apple, with stories about Sugar and the other ladies of the evening.

The whole book – on the surface – is sex, sex, sex. It goes into some pretty graphic detail; shares with us the fun of keeping oneself from getting pregnant in the 19th century, the toxic chemicals used to give oneself an abortion, explains how society gentlemen managed to find all kinds of cheap and easy women to sleep with, and highlights the rigid Victorian morality versus the squalor of poverty-stricken women whom have no choice but to sell themselves.

But who doesn’t like reading about dirty sex? Or all of the above?

I must also note that on a deeper level the novel is about social class and economic status. It is about transformation. It is about religion. It is about repressed women in the Victorian age. It might have been a novel that Charles Dickens would have written if he were alive today – but probably with a happier ending.

So I’ve warned you about length – and the interesting and unique way it is written – and I’d even lend you my copy, but I can’t because I’ve already lent it someone else – so you need to go find it yourself.


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