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The Crimson Petal and the White

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Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.

922 pages, Paperback

First published April 10, 2002

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About the author

Michel Faber

58 books1,948 followers
Michel Faber (born 13 April 1960) is a Dutch writer of English-language fiction.

Faber was born in The Hague, The Netherlands. He and his parents emigrated to Australia in 1967. He attended primary and secondary school in the Melbourne suburbs of Boronia and Bayswater, then attended the University of Melbourne, studying Dutch, philosophy, rhetoric, English language (a course involving translation and criticism of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts) and English literature. He graduated in 1980. He worked as a cleaner and at various other casual jobs, before training as a nurse at Marrickville and Western Suburbs hospitals in Sydney. He nursed until the mid-1990s. In 1993 he, his second wife and family emigrated to Scotland, where they still reside.

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Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews899 followers
January 17, 2013
A word of warning, my friends: I’ll be giving this the hard sell. To begin, please create in your mind’s eye (and ear) the most interesting tour guide imaginable. He knows all about Victorian England – its people, its paradoxes – and what’s more, he knows what you don’t know but would find fascinating. Transitions back and forth between our modern perspectives and their older, more circumscribed ones are virtually seamless. He’s wise about people, too, their quirks and motivations, independent of setting. Oh, and the language. . . every word is perfect. You’ll hardly notice the passing hours.

Right from the very beginning this omniscient fellow speaks directly to you, promises you intimate details (some of which are dark and surprising, even a bit graphic), and lures you straight into 1875. You’re in very deep soon enough, utterly beguiled.

Character-driven, with the plot riding shotgun

I think it’s a disservice to reveal much of the plot. The narrator/tour guide will get to what’s relevant when the time is right. I will summarize the inside flap, though, which I figure is fair game. William Rackham, the purposeless heir to a perfume manufacturer, meets Sugar, the clever and willing young prostitute who suddenly fills him with ambition. He takes over his father’s business, enjoys a quick reversal of fortune, and sees to Sugar’s ascent from the squalor so that he can have her all to himself. What follows is a whole lot of interplay between these characters and a well-drawn host of others. The primary ones are:

The aforementioned William – self-centered but not entirely vile; a would-be essayist and wag; a man defined and even a bit constrained by his social standing and the times.

The aforementioned Sugar – enterprising and smart; a devotee of [pun alert] Dale Carnalgie’s How to Win Johns and Manipulate People; riveting to see how her people smarts and hooker’s talent for prevarication play out in chess matches of actions and reactions.

Agnes – William’s wife who is actually somewhat deranged (we as readers are clued in to the cause even though the characters are not); beautiful yet naïve; almost laughably shallow by modern standards as the product of a finishing school.

Henry – William’s older brother who is in certain ways the better chap; would rather have been a man of the cloth than a man of commerce (as their father had originally hoped); earnest as the day is long but unable to suppress those pesky animal urges.

Emmeline Fox – a somewhat iconoclastic widow who does social work to help prostitutes in need; the object of Henry’s affections; one with a better applied sense of religion; ill but unyielding.

Sophie – William’s six-year-old daughter who begins as a near non-entity but turns into a character with surprising depth; much of her blossoming is due to a source I shan’t divulge.

Interesting others, among them prostitutes whose hearts range from gold to substances not nearly so glittery, a leech-toting doctor who sees to poor Agnes, and a couple of William’s friends from school – abominable but pretty damned funny.

Victorian London, seeds and all

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sorry. . . that’s unoriginal. But Dickens comes to mind for a reason. There were still many hardships for the poor, class distinctions were endemic, and byzantine morals lay beneath thin but glossy surfaces. The narrator states, “no righteous man must dare to think of the flesh, and no righteous woman must be aware of having it. If an exuberant barbarian from a savage fringe of the Empire were to stray into St. James's Park and compliment one of these ladies on the delicious-looking contours of her flesh, her response would most likely be neither delight nor disdain, but instant loss of consciousness.” Yet prostitution and pornography were booming. Conflict is easy to come by in a setting like this. It need not be manufactured or contrived.

Faber said, plausibly enough, that he did a huge amount of research into the times, but didn’t actually use much of it. He said he hates when authors try so desperately to show off their knowledge to justify their efforts in obtaining it. Faber’s goal instead was to paint a vivid picture without ever allowing the pace to bog down. He hoped there was none of that “Let’s pause here for some historical stuff.” And there wasn’t.

Purple prose? Pshaw!

While the Victorian setting makes a certain richness of prose seem natural, there was a conscious effort to mix in faster paced elements, too. This was done so well that the writing, while lush, never felt overly verbose or ponderous; this despite longer sentences and even occasional adverbs. (In an interview, Faber made fun of Stephen King’s book on writing that basically said a pox upon modifiers. My feeling is that King may be right for most writers, but exceptions must be made for those like Faber who are so good at choosing them; you know, advisedly, unerringly.)

Analysis (sans spoilers)

I mentioned already that the writing is both sumptuous and fast-paced, a mix of old and new. It seems the same can be said for its literary classification. Pomo, you might ask? Well, yes and no. The narrator at the very beginning makes no bones about the fact that you’re reading a novel. And he switches between multiple POV characters, occasionally speaking directly to us as modern-day readers. Some have even called this “tricksy”, though those same people also admit that in Faber’s capable hands, it works. For the most part, though, the book features older style narration. Faber’s answer to an interview question speaks clearly to the way he wants this to be perceived. “I'm not impressed when authors rub their readers' faces in the fact that a book is only an artificial construct, that characters are not real, that it's all an exercise in deception and intellectual conceit. There's nothing new or clever about this. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy did it to perfection two hundred and fifty years ago.”

For me the most interesting question is how a book so long never once bored me. It wasn’t just the setting or the writing, though both were appealing. I suspect it had more to do with how real the characters seemed. Faber said that in an earlier draft William was more villainous, but was rewritten to become more likeable and complex. This made his bad behavior all the more poignant since it came from someone I cared to learn about. Sugar was revealed in even greater detail as she vied for influence and a better life. We’re granted valuable access to her hopes, fears, sensibility, and schemes. When I sit for a tick to think about it, it’s the way the characters are revealed (through dialog, the story, the inner voices, and that amazing narrator’s talent for description) that makes this the best book I’ve read in quite a while.

The sense of a non-ending

This book is not loved universally. By far the most common complaint is the lack resolution at the end. Maybe The Sopranos helped prepare me, but I kind of liked the open-endedness. Some have surmised that after 900 pages, Faber just ran out of steam. As meticulously drawn as the storyline was up to that point, though, I suspect Faber wanted us to speculate. It made the story even truer to life, where loose threads dangle all over the map.

Faber evidently caved in to the pressure and later wrote a book of short stories called The Apple New Crimson Petal Stories that features the same characters. Whether it truly ties up loose ends, or is up to the standards of this one, I don’t know. But I plan to find out.

Trust me

Read this book! If not immediately, then soon. And if you don’t trust my judgment, check out the review by Goodreads luminary Paul Bryant. Maybe an Englishman, and one not so profligate with his stars, can convince you.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,218 reviews9,909 followers
August 27, 2011
You know in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind they've invented this brilliant device for erasing specific memories and the whole plot revolves around people who meet each other after they've had their memories of each other already erased, so they re-meet and re-love and it's all poignant and kind of whoah and oops I kind of gave the plot away - well, you should have seen it by now, come on, it's years old. Anyway, I'd love that particular invention to be true true true so that I could hustle down to the memory doctor's office and after having ALL of my romantic entanglements DELETED from my brain, obviously that would be the very first thing to do, then I'd present the doctor with a list of books to delete; and The Crimson Petal and the White would be right there in that little list, and it would, of course, be just so that I could have the pure unsullied delectable pleasure of reading it for the first time - again.

This is such a corking good page turner like if some giant Dickens and The Quincunx and The Worm in the Bud (great book about the Victorian sexual underworld) and some other stuff were shoved in the blender and then written up by a guy who really knows what he's doing.

Now, the ENDING of this huge novel was criticised greatly as being NOT AN ENDING at all but merely a dribbling away. So please note that there is a book called THE APPLE which is short stories accounting for the rest of all the characters' lives, and that's great and essential too.

I envy you people who have not read this.

And I'd also ask for my memory of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to be deleted too, that would just be a little bit of post modern humour to share with the memory doctor. Oh, and the memory of writing this review.
Profile Image for Teresa Jusino.
Author 7 books50 followers
August 13, 2007
I've been of the mind recently that there is something slightly worse than bad. And that is: almost. Bad, one can deal with. It's easily classifiable, and can be (to paraphrase Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief) "whittled down to a more manageable size." Almost is harder. Almost teases you with what could have been, only to disappoint you with what is. Almost is wasted potential. Almost lingers inside you like a dust bunny under a bed in a clean room. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber almost lives up to its promise.

I was drawn into the novel by seductive narrative voice leading me down the streets of Victorian London. It was a little bit cinematic and a little bit Dickensian, and I was immediately enthralled. Crimson Petal tells the story of Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute who is renowned in London for doing everything. There is no depravity too extreme, as long as she's getting paid for it. Yet, that's not what makes Sugar truly interesting. She's interesting, because while she was raised in prostitution, she's literate and reads voraciously. She's also an aspiring novelist, hoping to better the plight of prostitutes by exposing their ills (and their secret vengefulness) to the world through her prose. Meanwhile, on the other side of London, there resides the Rackham family, and at its head, William Rackham, heir to a perfume company.

It's his meeting and subsequent infatuation with Sugar that's supposed to be the main story in the novel, but Faber packs the novel with intricate "secondary" characters that are much more interesting: Agnes, William's addled, very Catholic wife; Henry Rackham and Emmeline Fox, William's brother and the unorthodox humanitarian he loves; little Sophie Rackham, forced into observing her household rather than taking part in it; and Caroline, Sugar's soulful prostitute friend.

All of their stories are so captivating that it must have seemed a daunting task to do them all justice...so Faber opted not to try. Instead, the lives of the supporting characters peter out with no resolution, good or bad. Now, we all know that life is not a neatly packaged thing. Situations don't resolve themselves perfectly, and one could argue that the "point" of this book is that that's how life is. However, that "rationale" for ending things with no change or resolution has more often than not seemed like a cop-out to me. I did find the resolution for Sugar (which also involved Sophie) very interesting, but that, too, is glossed over. Sugar is more spoken about than spoken through, and I found that very unfair to her.

The Crimson Petal and the White has moments of brilliance, full characters, and an interesting narrative voice. It's just a shame that all of these wonderful parts don't add up to a more successful whole. I wouldn't tell you not to read it....at the same time, I will say that you shouldn't expect to be completely satisfied when you've finished. I wasn't.
Profile Image for Emily.
41 reviews80 followers
June 5, 2007
If you don't like reading about sex, don't read this book. And when I say sex, I don't necessarily mean the pleasant kind of reading about sex, or the titillating kind of reading about sex. I mean, there are plenty of gory details in here about the everyday lives of Victorian women and prostitutes. And many of them aren't pretty.
The thing that fascinates and attracts me to this book is that it could only take place in Victorian London, and yet it could only have been written in the modern era. Dickens would never have been able to describe these things in such detail; things that range from contraceptive methods used by 19th century women to the vulgarities used by men looking for fun on a night out. But not only would Dickens not have written these things, he wouldn't know how to write them for us 21st century readers. He wouldn't know that we don't know how chamberpots work, or that we've never watched impoverished children looting the scene of an accident. Dickens would never guess that we don't understand why a woman can't walk the streets alone, or why two deeply-in-love and unmarried friends can't just stop freaking out about hellfire and have sex already. But Michael Faber understands these things, and he manages to describe them in a way that is usually elegant, sometimes repulsive, and always fascinating.
There are some problems with this modern Victorian thing. For example, why must Sugar, the Prostitute Protagonist (I like this phrase, it has nice alliteration, I'll have to start writing reviews of novels about whores) also have a superior knowledge of literature? Why do the heroines of historical fiction always have to be so damn modern in their thoughts? I mean, yes, admittedly, it makes us relate to them, but it does not seem realistic. I read these books because I like to know about people in the past, educated or not.
For this reason, I found the character of Agnes particularly interesting. She's a mess, for sure, I don't know if she's any more typical of the Victorian woman than Sugar is. She's insane, suffering from brain problems, she's sexually repressed to the point where she refuses to acknowledge her own child, and she's basically a child herself. I'd much rather hang out with Sugar. Still, Agnes is a much more unusual case to read about.
Anyway, the bottom line is, I couldn't stop reading this book. Sometimes I thought it was over the top and melodramatic- but then I always ended up getting sucked right into the melodrama, even more fascinated than I had been from the start. It's definitely worth a try.
I will say, as a final note, that many people find the end disappointing. I was told, by a number of people, on a number of occasions, that the end sucked. Perhaps as a result of that (or rather, as a result of the fact that I don't always like neat endings) that I found more satisfactory than I originally expected. I don't think Faber leaves any loose ends unintentionally.
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 259 books409k followers
February 12, 2015
Adult historical fiction. (Very adult) After enjoying Faber's most recent novel, The Book of Strange New Things, I decided to try this -- his earlier novel set in 1870s England. I have to admire someone who can evoke science fiction worlds and Victorian London with equal aplomb. The surety with which Faber resurrects the world of the 1870s is astounding. You will feel like you are there -- gritty streets, coal-blackened slums, high society balls and all. This is basically the story of a young prostitute Sugar and how an encounter with the young heir of a perfume empire changes both their lives in unexpected ways. The story is Dickensian in its scope and its deft juggling of many colorful characters, but its narrative sensibility is modern. The unnamed narrator speaks directly to the reader in second person at the beginning, and at the end . . . well, the ending is infuriatingly open-ended (Something I have been accused of myself) but after reflection, I've come to appreciate why the author chose to end the story as he did. It's definitely a tale that will stay with you long after you finish.
Profile Image for Candi.
623 reviews4,716 followers
April 2, 2018
"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether."

This opening from an omniscient narrator brings the reader directly into the story and on a journey to Victorian London that allows one to experience all of the secret and sordid details of the lives of its characters - much like a voyeuristic peek at what goes on behind closed doors and in the hidden chambers of those complex minds. What truly carries this story, in my opinion, is the strength of the characterizations as well as the superb writing. What didn’t work for me was the epic length of the book combined with a plot that sometimes seemed to stall or just failed to move forward at a pace I personally would have preferred. Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually the first to say that my favorite books are those that put characters before plot. I love getting into the heads of as many of the key players as possible. However, perhaps in this case, I just didn’t want to dally within these minds for quite so long! I guess there’s a limit to my curiosity about my fellow human beings. Homes have walls and curtains for a reason, I suppose!

So Victorian London… always a time period that fascinates me. I would concede that Faber does a tremendous job in presenting the details of that time period, including the destitution, prostitution, religion, the marked distinction between the upper and lower classes, as well as the handling (or more accurately, mishandling) of mental illness. This book certainly has a Dickensian feel to it – but more like a bawdy version of Dickens. A word of warning to the more sensitive reader – you may need to stomach more than your desired share of descriptions of a variety of bodily functions and fluids in this book!

Since characters are at the heart of this novel, I should spend some time mentioning them here. First and foremost we have Sugar, a young, ‘fallen’ woman who was forced into prostitution by her own mother. She has used her intelligence, cunning, seductive power, and her attentiveness to the needs of others in order to survive in the cruel world to which she was born. She is not just your ordinary prostitute, however. She is much sought after due to her ability to converse and intuit more than just the basest desires of her customers. Furthermore, unknown to her clients, she is an aspiring writer and a social climber. When she meets William Rackham, the perfume magnate, she sees an opportunity to advance herself, and Sugar is not one to pass up any possible advantage. William is a self-centered young man who has fallen into an inheritance of a business and a career that he never really wanted and for which he is quite ill-suited. I reached a point in the novel when I thought perhaps I could feel sympathetic to this wimpy little man, but then I changed my mind once again and he remains as a swinish personage. William is married to Agnes, an eccentric, delusional young woman who is on the road to insanity. One can feel a bit sorry for her as she suffers from a childhood without sufficient mothering, and now has to withstand the misguided efforts of a husband and physician who do not understand the unbalance of her psyche and the unhinging of her mental stability. She treats her own daughter, Sophie, like a child who is virtually nonexistent in her world. William all but ignores Sophie as a living and breathing entity in his household as well. The first time she is given any attention and the slightest hint of affection, the poor child positively glows. I believe Sophie to be perhaps the most important character in moving forward the plot of the novel, and it was with her introduction that I became fully absorbed. It is not her actions that drive the story, however, but her mere existence that does so… I won’t say more about this, however, as I don’t want to give away any key points of said plot. With a book this length, there are of course quite a few persons I could mention, but I’m not going to do so. However, I would be remiss not to point out my favorite character – Miss Emmeline Fox. She has aligned herself with William’s brother, Henry Rackham, in serving the needs of the impoverished and most ‘disgraced’ members of London’s most disreputable neighborhoods. She works for the Rescue Society and aims to bring the city’s prostitutes off the streets and into suitable employment in order to attempt to end the cycle of poverty and exploitation of these women. She is highly religious, but her charitable undertakings are completed without prejudice, judgment or even a whiff of self-righteousness. She’s quite unconventional, sort of like a Victorian, badass fairy godmother!

I definitely liked the second half of the novel much more than the first. Having said that, a nearly 900 page tome has to grab me a bit sooner to rate it in 4 or 5 star territory. I did enjoy where we ended up by book's end, although there were a couple of loose ends or questions I would have liked tied up or answered more firmly. I wanted to see more of Miss Fox before turning the last page, but alas, that wish was not to be granted either. Overall, I liked reading this book, I thought the writing was exceptional, but I’ve hopefully explained clearly enough the reasons for not rating this quite as highly as most of my GR friends. I do have another of Michael Faber’s novels stored away on my kindle for future, and I do look forward to reading that one when the time is right. I’m giving this book 3.5 stars, and am rounding down to a 3 which means I did like it, but didn’t quite ‘feel the love’!
Profile Image for Kelly.
889 reviews4,124 followers
July 22, 2008
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether..."

Thus does Faber begin his beguiling spell of a novel, the Crimson Petal and the White. He sets the bar rather arrogantly high with such an introduction, intriguing the reader, drawing us in with words that manage to be both the sharp slap of a glove across the face as well as the whispered words of a mysteriously dangerous lover whose face we can never quite see.

This is the late Victorian London that Faber gives us. This London, this England, belongs to no one author's inspiration. It is the dirty, industrial exploitative mess of Sinclair's "The Jungle," it the deeply urgent, hypocritical, stridently moral mess of Thomas Hardy's desperately dark imagination, it is the woman repressed to barely breathing in the the attic of the Brontes' imagination, it is a nearly unbearably complex Dickens character that 900 pages are not sufficient to describe. Faber gives direct or indirect homage to all the teeming, screaming, whispering, and of course, most interestingly, involutarily silent voices of the era. No one could hope to capture it all, of course, but Faber does his very best. It is for this sort of novel that I wish the word "awe" could be reserved for.

Faber gives us various guides on our journey, characters connected somehow in the teeming mass, tenously, momentarily, or perhaps intimately, showing the reader many different perspectives on the era, as characters have sometimes vastly different experiences based on one degree of birth, 10 shillings in their pocket, an address three streets better than someone else's, or the lack of a few pieces of vital, basic life information. He manages to give us the deeply urgent feelings of the era, on a range of topics from progress and modernization to a deeply religious perspective on romantic love to consumerism to the deep schism between sexual and "spiritual," love. Different characters' views on these subjects were everything from repulsive to ignorant to poignant to infuriating, covered in grime, tears, and rage. And yet, I found myself deeply touched by the unlikeliest of small minded, miserable characters. It was as if I saw their hands flailing in the darkness behind a door, and I kept wanting to kick that door in to take their hands and lead them out, and I couldn't do a thing about it.

Faber brings out the realities of every day life that seem to never surface in novels of the era. He coats his city in filth from the very first, not scrupling to show us a child covered in piss or a whore cleaning herself after a rank smelling customer has left her. He speaks of decaying teeth in the mouths of beauties, carriage collison deaths in routine morning traffic, and the realities of burial in a city where catching disease from corpses was a very real risk in the streets. And yet, this is not a treatise on the difficulties of early modern life alone. Faber just means to point out that these things existed alongside the big ideas, dreams, and spiritual yearnings of the era. Even married ladies who had no idea what sex was or where babies came from had chamber pots that smelled and needed to be emptied in the morning. He is right to yank us from our polite disregard of such facts in the typical journey into this era, just as ladies of the time should have been yanked.

He is not without poetry or a sparkling, sly humor in descriptions of this roiling mess, either. That is one of the greatly surprising aspects of the tale. Out of a dramatic vignette of hustle-bustle London life, there are observations like this: "morally, its an odd period, both for the observed and the observer: fashion has engineered the reappearance of the body, while morality still insists upon perfect ignorance of it. The bodice hugs tight to the bosom and the belly, the front of the skirt clings to the pelvis and hangs straight down, so that a slight wind is enough to reveal the presence of legs. Yet no righteous man must dare to think of the flesh and no righteous woman must be aware of having it. If an exuberant barbarian from a savage fringe of the Empire were to stray into St. James' Park now and compliment one of these ladies on the delicious looking contours of her flesh, the response would most likely be neither delight nor disdain, but an instant loss of consciousness."

His characters are surprising, too. They often seem ridiculous, overly dramatic, silly enough to dismiss at first sight. The author himself seems to feel the need to beg his audience to pay attention, to follow along specimens that we can only roll our eyes at for just a little bit longer. Sugar, our main protagonist, goes through a social mobility and through many changes not at all common for a woman of the era. Her slow transition and revelation as her economic and social class change, the needs and focuses of her thoughts as she changes again and again what she wants out of life. It is amazing to watch her transformation from chapter to chapter, how her voice and thoughts change. Our main male character, William Rackham, is introduced as a silly, self-important twit with vainglorious artistic aspirations, and an aversion to any sort of responsibility. Even when he takes hold of his fate, he does not really rise in quality in the slightest. Some might say he even decreases. Yet... I came to understand him. He has all the flaws of men of the era, and some not even as badly as most. His struggles to cope with so much he doesn't understand, his delusions become pitiful, even painful by the end. His relationship with his wife ends up being particularly powerful. Poor Agnes Rackham is enough to inspire anyone, feminist or not, into a rage at what women were meant to be, and what they could not be. The struggles of Emmeline Fox and Henry Rackham brought tears of rage to my eyes... it goes on and on. Faber gets us so involved with people that perhaps we would dismiss from an author less talented. I could go on and on here about all the issues of feminism raised through the female characters, the perceptions of them through the eyes of men, the classism, relative morality, but I do believe I would run out of characters allowed in this review before I'd barely begun.

As to the ending: (spoilers, perhaps? Though I don't plan to give much specific away.) I liked it. It was abrupt and shocking, rather, but after 900 pages of this epic... I somehow think it appropriate. At least from a modern novelist. I could almost believe that he stopped it there out of sheer fatigue with his narrative, but I don't think that's entirely it. His interweaving of his storylines over and over again into the complex web that they became was far too delicately done for that to be the case. We're meant to see the sort of ending that reality gives us... if indeed there ever really is an ending. Is there?

"It is time to let me go," is a fittingly sensitive, yet cruel parting from a story that has embodied that contradiction.

PS- (okay, now stop reading if you don't want to see a sort of spoiler)
... I think they go to America, Martine. :) If the heavy handed hints at the end were to be believed.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,182 followers
May 18, 2013
"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them." From that captivating opening (echoed several times later on), you are a voyeur, on an extraordinarily vivid journey. I was enthralled from the start, raced through the 800+ pages at every opportunity, and remain in awe of the way the story is told. Regularly addressing the reader in conspiratorial tones, lends an air of intimacy that suits the subject.


The central character is Sugar, a young prostitute who is uncommonly intelligent and well-read, but not conventionally attractive (she has psoriasis and doesn't really hide it), though she will famously do anything. During the dramatic turns of the story, we learn much about her, and yet she remains something of an enigma: once out of the brothel and engaged as a (somewhat unconventional) governess, her motives are often unclear, creating a growing sense of doubt that echoes those that others have about her.

However, in many ways, six-year-old Sophie is at least as important, partly because her existence is barely acknowledged for much of the time. She is a very sorry figure with "the air of a domestic pet bought for a child who has since died" and "the defeated look of an impounded animal". A tatty rag doll is one of her few toys, and "Sophie handles him tenderly, with a hint of sadness, as if conceding he's ever-so-slightly less alive than she'd like to think he is". Nevertheless, Sophie's vulnerability and trust has a powerful effect, "Sugar feels something she would never have guessed she could feel: the thrill of flesh against unfamiliar flesh, She who has been fingered by a thousand strangers." Ultimately, this is the key relationship in the book. I think the only weakness is, later on, when Sophie's thoughts are implausibly adult and perceptive for one so inexperienced in life and with people.

The main male character is William Rackham, who runs a perfumery and soap business. This is in sharp contrast to the dirtier aspects of the book (literal and metaphorical), though the analogy is never laboured. More powerful is Sugar's hatred of cut flowers, "The flowers she can tolerate... die firmly on their stems, in one piece to the last".


Being set in the 1870s, religion is relevant theme, along with how and if to help the poor and fallen. Drama and humour comes from three very different Christian characters: Agnes is a superstitious Roman Catholic, dabbling in other supernatural areas; Henry is traditional, idealistic, upstanding and uptight C of E, and Mrs Fox is pragmatic and radical - putting needs before doctrine, "a dissenter within a wider certainty", and not afraid to give her opinion (e.g. not believing the virgin birth!).

Mrs Fox and Henry try, in very different ways, to help the destitute, but Sugar's intentions to do likewise come to naught. "When Sugar was poor, she always fancied that if she ever became rich, she'd help all the poor women in her profession, or at least all those she knew personally", but she doesn't, not even through her writing. "The stench of charity is as real as the horse-shit on her shoes." When visiting an old friend, she is uncomfortably aware that "Nothing I say comes from my heart" and she is "ashamed this time of feeling ashamed". She feels powerless to help.


An ultimately futile passion for writing is a key experience for many of the characters (William, Agnes, Sugar, Bodley and Ashwell, even perhaps, Sophie). Sugar's motives are strong and honourable, thinking of prostitutes, she ponders, "I am their voice... Who understands and cares more?". None of the writers change anything, yet somehow, the book is exciting more than depressing (though there is plenty of cause for misery).


Describing this as "dirty Dickens" sounds pejorative, but I think it encapsulates it rather well.

There are many echoes of Dickens in some of the names, the milieu and the exposition of social ills (and something about Mrs Castaway's obsessive scrapbooking reminds me of Madame Defarge); you could link to Jane Eyre (mad wife and husband in claiming to be love with the governess, though it's not certain whether he really is), though that is more tenuous.


The last quarter of the book is a little flabby, but it's not bad, and what has gone before is so strong, that I forgive it that.

It ends abruptly, leaving the reader with many questions:

* If Agnes had stayed in her room, could William and Sugar have been happy?
* Is Sugar's concern for Agnes genuine, and if so, is she right to help her in the way she does?
* Can Sugar's final action be justified? (Is William really that monstrous?)
* Why doesn't Sugar do more to help those less fortunate - and is she wrong not to do so?
* Does the bond between Sophie and Sugar convince, and is it strong enough?

Don't be tempted to read "The Apple" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) for answers; there will be a few, but they're most unsatisfying. The original incompleteness works better. On the other hand, a completely separate collection of short stories, "Some Rain Must Fall", shows this novel isn't a one-off in terms of his writing (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).


Random quotes:
* "She slipped out of the room, like a pretty moth emerging from a husk of dried slime."
* "The stagnant contraceptive bouillon... the germs of another man's offspring."
* Even shops can be sexualised "having unlocked the chastity of shutters and doors, they can't see the point of maintaining any shred of modesty."
* "It was they [husband and son] who used to make her life a story... Nowadays her life is more like a newspaper: aimless, up-to-date, full of meaningless events."
* Shops "have expanded in celebration of the crinoline's demise. The modern woman has been streamlined to permit her to spend freely."
* "Superstitious atheist christian... believes in a God who, while he may no longer be responsible for the sun rising, the saving of the Queen or the provision of daily bread, is still the prime suspect when anything goes wrong."
* A breakfast laden with awkward silence, "small morsels of time are consumed, with an indigestible eternity remaining."
* "Letty greets them so avidly, as if a fresh coat of obsequiousness has just been applied to her."
* "The sepulchral stillness of suburbia."
* "That peculiar mixture of feline resentment and canine respect" when workers see a lady.
* "She's so weary of stealth... she wishes only to be a member of the family... cosily welcome, forever."
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
499 reviews856 followers
August 29, 2016
The Crimson Petal and the White is the 2002 novel by Michel Faber, a resplendent eight-hundred fifty page saga that chronicles the rise of an exceptionally clever London prostitute known as "Sugar" in 1874, her fall from grace the following year and how she impacts a multitude of characters along the way. That story isn't at all complex and given the political machinations that existed in high and low society of Victorian England, the secrets between powerful men and their cunning mistresses, as well as the intricate revenge schemes at times employed, the story itself proceeds in a very undramatic manner. It's not what Faber tells, but how he tells it that makes the book a great one.

Addressing the reader directly, as a cabman or street vendor might a potential fare or customer, the story begins on Church Lane in the neighborhood of St. Giles, which Faber describes as "at the very bottom, the lowest of the low." A prostitute named Caroline, a widow making her way alone on the streets for five years now, is introduced having to improvise everything from birth control to meals to heat during a cold winter. There are innumerable ways to die in London, but for those able to rise above begging, also opportunities, as Faber indicates as he passes us from Caroline to an old friend named Sugar she bumps into inside a stationary shop on Greek Street.

Having lifted herself up from Church Lane to Silver Street--described as "a hop skip and jump from the widest, richest, grandest thoroughfare in London"--and into a tightly managed bawdy house known as Mrs. Castaway's, Sugar is a poised and well-dressed nineteen-year-old prostitute steadily in demand due to her ability to do two things Caroline cannot: carry on a conversation with any man and to never have to say "no" to one, both with a childlike innocence that customers seem to find desirable. Unknown to Caroline, Sugar is writing a novel, a sordid halfpenny tale of one prostitute's bloody revenge against the male sex.

Following Sugar to Regent Street, where the future of London promises to be "airy, regular and clean," we're passed over to William Rackham, heir to Rackham Perfumeries. William has traveled to Billington & Joy with his wife's unscrupulous maid Clara on a mission to procure himself a more fashionable hat and his wife dress-making material. William is something of a ne'er-do-well fop whose collegiate ambition to become an essayist and author has been subverted by his father, who needs a son to properly assume control of the perfume company while his aloof, first-born son Henry shows no aptitude for business, choosing instead to devote himself to God.

Living on an allowance from his father, William has inherited a home in Notting Hill going to pot with fewer servants and fine accoutrements (such as a coachman) as William dithers taking over the family empire. His once elegant and witty wife Agnes has secluded herself from society and from her husband, whom she rarely even takes meals with, relapsing into spells or diatribes that the family physician Doctor Curlew suggests demands treatment in an asylum. William drowns his demons with two degenerate college friends, Bodley and Atwell, who take William drinking or whoring. But not even the services of a set of nubile twins delivers William from his malaise.

An apparent disappointment to all who observe him, William diverts himself with More Sprees in London--Hints for Men about Town, with advice for greenhorns. The bachelor's guidebook of debauchery includes sections on "Trotters" (street girls) and "Prime Rump" (which includes bottle service well out of William's price range), however, a review under "Mid Loin (For Moderate Spenders)" catches his attention. Following directions, William heads to The Fireside Inn, a pub located near Silver Street where he seeks out Sugar, who the guidebook promises is "especially accomplished in the Art of Conversation, and is assuredly a fit companion for any True Gentleman."

Faber's description of Sugar as William lays eyes on her for the first time is indicative of the novel's mesmerizing prose and the author's ability to convincingly jump into the skin of different characters:

At that moment The Fireside's door swings open and in walks a solitary woman. A whiff of fresh air comes in with her, as well as the sound of wild weather outside, cut off in mid-howl by the sealing of the door, like a cry stifled under a hand. The pall of cigar smoke parts momentarily, then mingles with the smell of rain.

The woman is all in black--no, dark green. Green darkened by the downpour. Her shoulders are drenched, the fabric of her bodice clinging tight to her prominent collar-bones, and her thin arms are sheathed in dappled chlorella. A sprinkling of unabsorbed water still glistens on her simple bonnet and on the filmy grey veil that hangs from it. Her abundant hair, not flame-red just now but black and orange like neglected coal embers, is all disordered, and loose curls of it are dripping.

Offering the name "George W. Hunt," William is immediately taken with Sugar, who can quote Shakespeare, but more importantly, knows how to listen. As she allows William to talk, she makes him feel charming, fluent and intelligent again. He escorts Sugar back to her homely room at Mrs. Castaway's, where he not only falls asleep before any sexual transaction can occur, but drunkenly wets himself. Sugar passes the night at her writing desk working on her novel. From such auspicious beginnings, William becomes obsessed by Sugar, and seeks to reach terms with Mrs. Castaway that will make her his exclusively. To his surprise, Sugar agrees with the arrangement.

In order to properly keep a woman like Sugar, William dedicates himself to Rackham Perfumeries and improves his fortunes dramatically. He relocates Sugar from the brothel on Silver Street she shares with her employer (and mother) Mrs. Castaway to an apartment outside the city in Priory Close with French doors and a bathtub. Sugar grows isolated in the suburbs and begins to advise William in the world of business, helping him maintain his empire while he teaches her about the perfume industry.

Sugar shrewdly takes an interest in William's domestic life. Agnes, whose tumorous condition remains undiagnosed by medicine, continues her spiral into madness, while William's brother Henry combats desires for Doctor Curlew's daughter Emmeline Fox, a reformer who volunteers for the Rescue Society, an organization trying to steer prostitutes away from sin and into honest work. Sugar discovers at the same time the reader does that William and Agnes have a five-year-old daughter named Sophie, who's reached the age when she needs schooling. Seeking to solidify William's total dependence on her, Sugar offers herself for the job of the lonely child's governess.

Despite publishing only three novels, Michel Faber announced in 2014 that he would stop writing novels following the death of his wife and companion of twenty-six years. While this would be a tragedy, then at the very least, with The Crimson Petal and the White (the title is from the Tennyson poem Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, which opens,"Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white") the author left it all on the floor. Few facets of London society in the 1870s remain unlit by Faber's glorious writing style, his natural sounding dialogue and characters struggling to exist.

If this novel had been written by virtually any other other author or at any other period of time, I probably would've abandoned it. At 838 pages, the story really doesn't get started until Sugar moves in to the Rackham residence on page 497. Each time Faber transitions away from her side of the story with its exciting duplicity and vulnerability in order to dwell on the existential funk of William's depressed brother Henry or the angelic plights of Mrs. Fox, who like Agnes, falls ill, with what's initially diagnosed as consumption, I considered that maybe the book didn't have to be so damn long. And yet, I kept reading. Opening the book up to almost any page and it's hard not to:

"Church Lane, back entrance of Paradise, fankyerverymuch!" Having delivered a well-dressed lady to this repugnant quarter of the Old City, the cabman utters a snort of sarcasm; his like-minded horse dumps, as a parting gesture of disdain, a mound of hot turd on the cobbles. Resisting the temptation to tick him off, Sugar keeps her mouth shut and pays the fare, then tiptoes towards Mrs Leek's house with the hems of her skirts lifted. What a morass of filth this street is!--the fresh fall of horseshit is the least of its hazards. Did it always stink like this, or has she been living too long in a place where nothing smells but rose-bushes and Rackham toiletries?

The deplorable living conditions in the city's poor quarters with their brigades of beggars and puddles of piss and vomit on the cobblestones--not to mention the total absence of birth control and women's suffrage--are woven into the book in a skillful way; Victorian London is only the background and Faber keeps his research from charging into the foreground, creeping up on occasion to tap the characters on the shoulders rather shockingly, then retreating. Rather than become an info dump, the focus is on the characters always. Faber uses Victorian era patois sparingly and each of his characters seem to express themselves both uniquely and honestly with intelligence, passion and wit.

The Crimson Petal and the White, like Faber's other novels Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things, subverted my expectations in the way that it refuses to barrel through conventions of any genre, in this case, the subterfuge and revenge of a thriller. William Rackham, his wife Agnes or her maidservant might've been villains in another book, creatures of plot devising ways to rule Sugar or maybe ruin her, but over 838 pages, the picture that emerges of these characters is more complex than that. There were qualities of each character I was able to identify with, which in addition to the marvelous writing, helped me surf my way through to an unforgettable ending.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews35 followers
April 20, 2021
The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

Michel Faber (born 13 April 1960) is a Dutch-born writer of English-language fiction, The Crimson Petal and the White is a 2002 novel set in Victorian England.

The novel details lives of two very opposite Victorian women, Agnes and Sugar, and the linchpin on whom they revolve: William Rackham.

William, the unwilling and somewhat bumbling heir to a perfume business, is a businessman of moderate success and little self-awareness.

He married the exquisitely doll-like Agnes, who embodies the Victorian "female ideal" of naive femininity, for her beauty though he barely knew her.

Since she has been kept completely in the dark on matters, Agnes's diaries express utter confusion over events like menstruation (she believes a demon returns periodically to "bleed" her).

Outside of the house, few know of Agnes's madness (though knowledge of it spreads during the length of the story), who presents herself as an inveterate hostess and socialite to the world during each season. ...

تاریخ نخستین خوانش روز دهم ماه نوامبر سال 2020میلادی

عنوان: گلبرگ زرشکی و سفید؛ نویسنده: مایکل (میشائیل) فابر (فیبر)؛ موضوع داستانهای نویسندگان هلندی تبار استرالیایی - سده 21م

داستان یک روسپی نوزده ساله به نام «سوگار» در دوره ی «ویکتوریایی» در «لندن» است؛

مایکل فابر (میشائیل فیبر) نویسنده ای هستند، که در کشور «هلند»، متولد شده اند؛ ایشان در کودکی، به همراه خانواده ی خویش، به «استرالیا» مهاجرت کردند، و در شهر «ملبورن» به تحصیل پرداختند؛ ایشان آثار خویش را به زبان «انگلیسی» می‌نگارند؛ «فابر» علاوه بر داستان‌نویسی، به روزنامه ‌نگاری نیز می‌پردازند

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 30/01/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Michael || TheNeverendingTBR.
479 reviews190 followers
March 28, 2021
“A single day spent doing things which fail to nourish the soul is a day stolen, mutilated, and discarded in the gutter of destiny.”

Sugar is a nineteen year old prostitute who lives in 1870s London. One day a rich man comes to see her. He is so enamoured by her that he signs a contract with the woman running the house to release her for a big sum of money. He rents out a spacious house in a nice locality and Sugar goes to live there as this rich man’s mistress. One things leads to another after that and Sugar’s life is transformed beyond recognition – I won’t tell you more, you have to read the book and find out what happened, yourself.

It's a long 900 page book, slow-paced but beautifully written, the characters were very well developed and I consider this an excellent piece of literature.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,621 reviews988 followers
January 9, 2022
Sugar is a 19 year old prostitute, with startling looks, working in Victorian London, who yearns for a better life. This is the story of her ascension from being 'employed' by the brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway; through catching the eye (and other parts) of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham; an admiration that soon begins to smell a lot like love and more... Sugar's social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds. Despite starting off so well, and with some very cool historical touches this book sort of lost its way a bit for me, although still worthy of a Three Star, 7 out 12.

2003 read
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,539 followers
September 25, 2015
I was totally captivated by this novel about class differences and sexual mores of late Victorian London--its rich and lively writing, its cast of engaging characters, and a plot that wavers among entertaining romp, serious social commentary, and tragedy. A key device is an omniscient narrator who speaks directly to the modern reader, more in the beginning but also at turning points in the long story. Rather than pulling you out of participation in the story, the approach works well to stoke compassion for the characters and interest in what they will do next.

William Rackham is a spoiled scion of a perfume magnate who fancies himself a classics scholar and essayist. Since his older brother Henry has ambitions with the church, his father tasks him with taking over the family business and uses constrictions on his allowance to motivate him. He is finding it harder to maintain his aristocratic household with servants and expenses incurred by his naïve and dotty trophy wife, Agnes. Here is how our narrator intrudes to adroitly draw you in:

i>But let me rescue you from drowning in William Rackham’s stream of consciousness, that stagnant pond feebly agitated by self-pity. Money is what it boils down to: how much of it, not enough of it, when will it come next, where does it go, how it can be conserved, and so on. …
So there you have it: the thoughts (somewhat pruned of repetition) of William Rackham as he sits on his bench in St. James’s Park. If you are bored beyond endurance I can offer only my promise that there will be f**king in the very near future, not to mention madness abduction and violent death.

William’s outlet in escapades of drinking and whoring on the town with his feckless college pals is wearing thin. Following their published tour guide of brothels he finds his way to the arms of Sugar, whose ability to both please him in bed and discuss literature and politics soon has him madly in love with her. He sets her up in a private pad, and she soon makes it economically feasible by helping him master the people management key to his growing success with the perfume industry.
Our sympathies for William progressively get degraded. Sugar is our true hero. She is using him more than he does her. Her outlet lies with the writing of a pornographic Gothic thriller about a prostitute who takes violent revenge on exploitive men (everyone seems to be a writer in this tale). She comes to empathize with the fate of Agnes, who is suffering from a mysterious illness that affects her grip on reality. From access to her diaries she learns that the wife is so twisted up she assumes her monthly periods are part of her illness and that she mentally denies that she has a daughter. The neglected daughter Sophie figures largely in the plot in the latter half of the book. Just deserts are satisfactorily achieved in the reversal of fortunes by the end of this amazing saga.

Throughout the book you are constantly tuned into the exploitation of the poor by the rich and by the seedy underbelly of a society so prideful of its high civilization. Ever prurient hook of sexuality is undermined by the muck of sordidness and bodily secretions. You mind has to get some calluses to overcome the disgust factor. In the end, the modern narrator begins to indict you the reader with “dirt is in the mind of the beholder”. This bothered me with its excess. As an ending example, note that this is the narrator slipping in a shocking angle into a chatty and ironic discourse about Agnes:

You wonder if you have seen her somewhere before; indeed you have. She is a high-Victorian ideal; perfection itself at the time William married her ever-so-slightly-quaint now that the Seventies are half-way over. …She is a paragon of porcelain femininity, five foot two with eyes of blue, her blond hair smooth and fine, her mouth like a tiny pink vulva pristine.
Profile Image for Priya.
Author 2 books14 followers
September 1, 2015
Ugh. This book, and the length had nothing to do with it, took me about three weeks to read. (If it was any good it would have taken about a week, even with its 700 pages).

This book was beyond bad. If I could give it zero stars I would. Not only was the writing atrocious, but the narration was awful--I hate it when the narrator is not only third person omniscient but also directly addresses the reader in a very obnoxious voice that basically drove me mad.

I have to say that the book was probably very well researched, but it was on some level, really an examination of a very small segment of society--and while I think that he captured Sugar's evolution in thought and place in the world in a very interesting fashion, I failed to be drawn into caring for anyone in this story--with the exception of Agnes (maybe).

It is however, ironic that the only survivor in this entire story is the widow M. Emmeline Fox, but I don't really buy Sugar's actions at the end as one a sane woman would take.

I just have to say it was a disappointment. However if you're reading for the smut and the sex--you just might like it more then me (but if I wanted that stuff I'd just read a romance novel, at least the plots are better).
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Metodi Markov.
1,343 reviews318 followers
April 26, 2023
Това не е историческа книга, това си е чиста проба книжна машина на времето!

Фейбър грабва читателя и го пренася в Лондон, столицата на Британската империя от времето на кралица Виктория.

Героите са превъзходно създадени, описанията - чудесно детайлни и човек сам не усеща, как потъва все по-дълбоко в историята на Ракъм и Шугър.

За мен всичко бе интересно и увлекателно, определено ми отговаря стилът на автора и със съжаление обърнах последната страница на този напоителен като чувства и история роман.

На много хора вероятно не ще се хареса или просто няма да имат търпение да проследят внимателно тези над деветстотин страници, но това си е тяхна загуба.

На тези, които ще се осмелят, аз пожелавам приятно пътуване в магическата реалност на миналото, пресъздадено автентично от един голям майстор на перото!

P.S. Има сериал, надявам се да е добър!
Profile Image for Martine.
145 reviews691 followers
July 3, 2008
If I had to give a one-word response to the big, sprawling monster of a faux-Victorian novel that is The Crimson Petal and the White, it would be 'WOW'. (With capitals. Yes.) At 895 pages, it's a big book, and it's not without its flaws, but such is the quality of the writing, the characterisation and the staggering amount of research that went into it that I was enthralled from beginning to end and stayed up until 4am on a weekday night to be able to read the last four hundred pages. I don't regret the sleep I lost that night; if anything, I regret that there weren't four hundred more pages to stay up for. That's how much I liked the book.

So what's it all about? Well, it's hard to sum up an 895-page story in a few lines, but basically it's about an intelligent prostitute who lives in 1870s London, wheedles her way into a rich man's life and ends up changing several lives, not least her own. She's an appealing (albeit emotionally scarred and manipulative) heroine, and she's portrayed in admirable detail. So are all the other characters, who make up one of the finest casts since the heyday of Dickens. Randy gentlemen, cross-dressing prostitutes, society-obsessed ladies with brain tumours, would-be parsons tormented by sexual fantasies, love-starved children who grow up in the servants' quarters because their mothers can't be reminded of their existence, guards who spend all the days of their lives reciting news of deathly disasters, well-bred ladies who risk expulsion from polite society to help fallen women... they're all here, and they're drawn in shockingly intimate detail. All their thoughts, dreams and fantasies are spilled out on the pages, and for the most part they're riveting. Similar candour is employed in the descriptions of actions and places. Not content with simply providing lush descriptions of Victorian splendours (although he certainly does that, too), Michel Faber gives his book a distinctly modern feel by describing things no Victorian novelist in his right mind would ever have mentioned, such as, well, sex. The Crimson Petal and the White is full of highly inelegant sex scenes, liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. In addition, it features painstakingly detailed descriptions of unmentionable things like the heroine's skin disease, the sounds, sights and smells of London's red-light district, the vaginal douches with which prostitutes tried to prevent pregnancy, the look and smell of used chamber pots, a farting concert, and so on. This may sound off-putting, but the descriptions are so vivid and so, well, interesting that they greatly add to the authenticity and local colour of the book, presenting a truly kaleidoscopic view of London in the 1870s. The result is a rich and fascinating story which is at turns utterly Victorian and thoroughly modern, dirty and elegant, highbrow and lowbrow, disgusting and engrossing. It certainly isn't for the faint of heart, but in its own daring way, it's spectacular. I would even go so far as to call it mesmerising.

As for its shortcomings, well, I guess you could say the book is a bit jarring at times. Faber has an interesting tendency to introduce characters, devote many words to them, and then suddenly and quite randomly to kill them off or otherwise lose sight of them, thus making you wonder what their point was in the first place. In a way, the sudden deaths/disappearances are as realistic as the descriptions of the chamber pots and vaginal douches (after all, death does creep up on us very suddenly, and people do really vanish from our lives like that, don't they?), but it's an uncommon device in literature, and it's a bit jarring at times, especially since it's so thoroughly un-Victorian. Aren't storylines usually tied up neatly in Victorian novels?

Which brings me to the ending. Much has been written about the ending of The Crimson Petal and the White, which is as jarring and un-Victorian as they come. There is no 'Reader, I married him' here, much less a summary of what happened to the main characters after the final curtain. Instead, the story comes to an abrupt halt, leaving the main characters in medias res. Like many readers, I was initially put off by the ending, thinking that the narrator's sudden 'But now it's time to let me go' was a paltry reward for staying with him for nearly nine hundred pages. However, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the ending. After all, what could be more fitting in a book which is largely about fantasies than to leave the reader on a note which has him fantasising about what might have happened to the characters, weighing the pros and cons of each scenario? I definitely agree that Faber should have ended the story on a less abrupt note, but I've forgiven him for the openness of the ending. It works for me, even if many other people hate it.

As for conjectures about the ending... My guess is that Sugar and Sophie end up building a new life for themselves in Australia. What do you think, those of you who have read the book?
Profile Image for Siria.
1,862 reviews1,359 followers
June 4, 2007
Enjoyable and rather compulsively readable, but not particularly impressive, The Crimson Petal and the White is essentially an 18 rated version of Dickens—a cautionary tale set in Victorian London, but with more mention of prostitutes, erections and human excretions than you could shake a reasonably sized stick at.

The prose is quite solid, though it feels a little padded in places, particularly in regards to the Henry Rackham/Emmeline Fox subplot; similarly, the narrative flows well, though I would query both his decision to address the reader as 'you' at several points, particularly at the beginning of the book, and the incredibly abrupt and unsatisfying nature of the ending. There were also several places where the shifts in POV were accomplished less than successfully.

It did rollick along amiably enough, and at eight hundred pages long, it definitely amused me for a couple of hours; but there is one reason that I won't be returning to it, or purchasing the sequel which I hear is in the offing—the characterisation. The motivations of the various characters seemed forced or off on several occasions, particularly those of the main character, Sugar. The further I progressed in the book, the more I came to be convinced that this was not a real woman I was reading about, not an angry, intelligent nineteen year old who had been forced into prostitution at an early age, but what a male author thinks such a woman would be. I did not find the change in her character over the course of the book to be convincing, and I think that if you were to burrow into the underlying motivation of those changes, they would be more than a little misogynistic.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
876 reviews1,106 followers
January 5, 2017
I made it! Okay, so I finished it a couple of days late, but I finished up my 2016 TBR by finally reading The Crimson Petal and the White. As I wanted to read Michel Faber's main novels in order, this has been on the cards for me ever since I read Under the Skin back in the summer of 2015. I kept putting it off though, partly for its length, and partly because I was determined to read it in the autumn/winter months. I'm glad that I finally got to it though, because it was definitely worth the wait.

The book follows a prostitute called Sugar on her journey rising through the social ranks of Victorian London, and her journey is constantly twisting and turning and surprising the reader. Sugar is a fantastic character, with a vivid personality that explodes off the page, and I loved being in her head and experiencing all the emotions she went through throughout the course of the novel. What I liked about this book though was that it wasn't just focused on Sugar, but also on a variety of other characters that are all fascinating in their own right. Agnes Rackham in particular was a fascinating character to read about, and I was always excited when one of her sections came about.

The book is incredibly dense with the amount of information that Faber provides, and at times this did slow my reading down. Some characters I wasn't as interested in as others (e.g. Henry Rackham), so those sections did lead my mind to wander a little bit, but overall Faber had me hooked, particularly during the last 25% of the book where I was wholly invested in Sugar and Sophie Rackham's characters and what would become of them. Faber does a fantastic job of building up Victorian London in the reader's mind, everything from the dirty dangerous slums to the high society houses and venues of 'The Season'.

I am incredibly excited to check out the BBC miniseries that was adapted from this book, as I've heard amazing things about it. I will be interested in particular to see how the character of Agnes is portrayed, as she is one of the most fascinating people in the entire book. Overall, I thought this was incredibly entertaining, but unfortunately it took me longer to read than usual due to being excessively busy and also having my mind wander at points. It's definitely a book worth reading though, particularly if you like fiction set in the Victorian period that is very well written, and it's one I'd probably recommend to everybody.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,302 reviews22.1k followers
October 4, 2011
When this book started I thought that it was going to be quite a different kind of novel. I thought it was going to be a bit like Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – a series of beginnings tripping over one another, but never getting further on than that. I thought that this would be a kind of ‘day in the life’ of Victorian London – one seen through the eyes of prostitutes and their clients. What is it, I wonder, that has us so fascinated by Victorian prostitutes? Is it just that Victorian England tried so hard to be, well, Victorian? We don’t seem to be able to help ourselves stripping these supposed prudes bare and gawking at the sweaty, pimply, thrusting behinds of grunting men in alleyways with their trousers in muck about their ankles with them holding the endless frills of skirts up around the necks of the women they’ve paid to void themselves into.

We start in the morning and make our way from one prostitute to the next. We are like a virus that is caught and passed on and in this contagion we are introduced to both the city and those who inhabit it. I wondered, as the pages went on, if I would be able to sustain interest in such a long book of such episodic stories – half told and then left. I saw the novel turning into something like trying to sort a million photographs after an explosion at a Kodak factory.

But it settles to normal narrative soon enough – although, never quite normal. The characters have all the outward appearance of having ‘developed’ and yet – and yet… I love a story where there are ‘compare and contrast’ themes all the way through. I love a story where Chekhov’s gun is loaded and ready to fire – and in a novel this size there are enough loaded guns to ensure victory at the Crimean. I love a novel where irony smells like rotting fish held up under your nose.

But most of all, I love a story where there are dark angels. Where the person who is planning to do the worst of all possible things to you is actually your redeemer, where those who try to help you bring about your undoing – and those who ought to be your guardian angel, your mother, who would rather die than harm you, are as dangerous as lions and tigers and snakes. Do you know that line from Twelfth Night by Feste? “Truly sir, the better for my foes and the worse for my friends.” A wise fool indeed.

I loved the idea that the most disgusting, loathsome act in the book, (and this is my only spoiler) an act that even has the cheapest of prostitutes recoiling in horror and saying – ‘oh no sir, that would send us down the slippery slope if we were to agree to THAT’, is never revealed to us. And I wondered, is it that today there is no depravity, no shameless act that is not, in fact, a commonplace? The sex in this book is anything but sexy. I suspect there is far less sex in it than I remember, but then, sex is generally a bit like that, I’ve found.

You’re probably not going to like the end – but it could hardly have ended in any other way. In fact, the end made me think back to the start – in many ways this book did end up being the book I thought it was going to be.

This is an absurdly long novel – so I can hardly complain if it ends all too quickly, can I? Such is life, after all.
Profile Image for Michela De Bartolo.
163 reviews56 followers
August 20, 2018
Faber , in questo romanzo, è stato capace di mostrare la vita, per come è davvero: nel farlo descrive la società intera, partendo dai bassifondi per arrivare all'alta borghesia e alla nobiltà. Descrive tutto in maniera cruda e realistica, senza soffermarsi su chi è buono e chi è cattivo. Sugar, prostituta, è guidata da grande opportunismo, che sembra trasformarsi in sentimenti sinceri, verso William un ricco ereditiero , travolto da una forte infatuazione per Sugar , che col tempo ,purtroppo , si trasformerà in quello che apparentemente è totale indifferenza. Tuttavia, quello che l'autore ci da, è uno sguardo a sui gesti e sulle azioni, più che sui pensieri dei suoi personaggi, che quindi restano sempre nell'ombra. Non sapremo mai davvero se i sentimenti di Sugar o William sono cambiati effettivamente, o se sono solo cambiate le circostanze e il mondo attorno a loro. Discorso che, ovviamente, vale per ogni personaggio.
Lo stile di Faber, poi, è uno stile che mostra: il romanzo si apre con una chiacchierata dell'autore con il lettore, che incanta e spinge ad immaginare ,ad osservare, ciò che succede agli attori, quasi come fossimo a teatro. Solo che, a teatro la storia è inventata per intrattenere, ha dei buoni, dei cattivi, un inizio e anche un finale. Qui no, perchè quello che vediamo sono vite di persone, non avventure. E cosi, abbiamo anche il finale-non finale, che ci lascia con tante domande e con l'amaro in bocca. Faber mi ha raccontato un pezzo di vita.
Faber in una sorta di Grande fratello mi ha fatto spiare dal buco della serratura.
Faber mi ha regalato del tempo con queste persone.
Il mio tempo con loro è finito.Non so dove sono,non so cosa fanno,il che gli regala per me immortalità.
Profile Image for Laurie Neighbors.
201 reviews140 followers
February 27, 2016
Okay, I read this book. I read every page because, you know, Michel Faber, right? I mean, his prior work was not without merit.

What the hell was he thinking, though, when he wrote this book? Was he aiming for mediocre language and predictable plot with lots of crusty, nasty Victorian sex? Cause if so, bravo!

Still, I did read it all the way through. So what does that say about ME? I think what it says about me was that I hang in, even against my better judgment. I read all the way through because I just kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the moment of genius.

It so didn't come.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,018 reviews1,184 followers
April 28, 2018
I have a weakness for Victoriana, even the faux Victoriana like Sarah Waters, and who doesn't love a good prostitute story? Many Goodreads friends reviewed "The Crimson Petal and the White" very highly, so when I spotted it at my favorite used book store, I grabbed it immediately.

This book had me, hook, line and sinker, after just a couple of lines. The enthralling tone all but hypnotized me and I spent the whole long Easter weekend with my nose buried in Faber's novel. The slightly sarcastic omniscient narrator dragged me from my modern and comfortable setting into the dodgy street of a long-gone London and told me quite a story! This is what historical fiction should be: educational, entertaining, thought-provoking and moving.

Sugar is an uncommonly well-read and clever nineteen years old prostitute; she is in very high demand with gentlemen (despite being far from the beauty standards of her era), both because she can make conversation with them and because she never says "no" to any demand they might make. What she actually has that her fellow ladies of the night don't is business acumen: she understands what attracts clients and keeps them coming. Sure, they have an urge to fulfill, but if she can give them much more than they expect by being familiar with what they read in newspapers, understanding their business talk and remembering trivial details they drop during their conversation, they'll keep coming back and pay more money. Sugar is not a simple prostitute, she is a marketing maven.

William Rackham is a dandy who has been used to a life of leisure and superficial intellectual pursuits. His wife Agnes is slowly going insane, but he can only think of that situation as a great inconvenience to himself and as a strain on his lifestyle. When he becomes infatuated with Sugar, he understands that he must shake off his lazy habits if he wants to be able to afford the exclusive patronage of the enigmatic prostitute. In a strange way, Sugar brings out the best out of William's immature nature and uses him to leave Mrs. Castaway's brothel and improve her circumstances. While she claims to despise William, Sugar goes through a lot of trouble to make herself part of his life - her efforts culminating in her appointment as governess to his young, isolated daughter Sophie.

There is a realistic grit to this book that most authors of that time would never have dared to put on the page: the dirt, the smells, the rot, the million little social hypocrisies… There is no white-washing, pretending or illusions possible in Faber's London. This is what makes some of the characters tragic, instead of caricatural. It is tempting to detest most of them: let's face it, no one in this book is especially likable, but their development is such that you come to understand them and then feel grateful to have been born in the 20th century.

I wanted to punch Agnes, but I also wanted to take five minutes to explain menstruation to her so that she would stop freaking herself out every time she got her period - because no one else ever bothered explaining reproductive health to the poor ninny! William is utterly detestable at times, but compared to what most men of his situation are up to, his sense of entitlement and and silliness seems very quaint. He has been in a position of privilege all his life, and taking things for granted is simply a habit of mind for him; he has no way to anticipate the consequences of his selfishness because no one ever stood up to him before. I confess I was disappointed with the way he handles his wife and Sugar, but I was not in the least bit surprised…

I actually came to think of Sugar and Agnes as the two faces of the same coin: one is assertive and pragmatic while the other endures things and escapes in delusions to make reality easier to bear, but both of them need William and his attention more than either is willing to admit. One understands sexuality and its power and has been using it almost all her life while the other can't face the simplest biological realities. The world they live in, where female sexuality is either repressed or exploited - but never, it seems, genuinely enjoyed - makes them both victims of male sexuality, which is a socially accepted fact of life. It drives Agnes further towards madness, and it renders Sugar numb to any sort of comfort to be found in another person's physical contact.

Sugar starts out with purely mercenary interests: what will benefit her? What will help her claw her way out of the proverbial gutter to gain comfort and respectability? But before she has a chance to realize it, the feelings she thought herself completely immune from rear their sneaky heads. Her attachment to William becomes very real, and when he turns a cold shoulder to her, it is not just her interests that are hurt. She wants to know he loves her, not just because she'd be out in the street if he didn't, but also because for the first time in her life, she has truly mattered to someone, has had a value in their eyes that was more than transactional. The way she slowly realizes that her mother's treatment of her when she was a child is something she wants to spare Sophie from (I am just referring to the psychological abuse here, and not to other - even more horrible - things Sugar had to endure very young), it is obvious that her appointment as governess is no longer a means to an end: Sophie's welfare means more to her than she expected when she worked her way into the Rackham household.

But of all the characters in this novel, my favorite is undoubtedly Mrs. Emmeline Fox and her very unorthodox behavior and sense of propriety. Her keen mind, great compassion and work ethic make her a very unusual female character for any book taking place in Victorian England. She is the only person in "Crimson Petal" who never judges anyone's behavior, and simply assumes that they are doing the best they can with the circumstances they found themselves into. Her work with the Rescue Society, to reform fallen women, is born from her deep piety, but her piety has not addled her brains: her logical mind is as strong as her faith.

The themes of religion, morality, redemption and the way people's position influence their understanding of good and evil are explored in a fascinating way. Henry's conversation with Caroline, about her previous life, her current circumstances and the fact that she genuinely feels there is no hope or forgiveness - and yet she doesn't feel like she is the one who's sin is the most grievous - is illuminating and heartbreaking. If the people who speak so highly of virtue had actually helped her keep hers as well as a roof over her head, she would not be reduced to a life of prostitution in St. Giles street. It reminded me of one such modern hypocrisy: abortion is a crime, but not leaving single mothers penniless and resourceless when they have to take care of their children.

Many people were unhappy with the ending, from what I have gathered reading reviews, but I thought it felt right. We are dropped into this murky London on the first page, and plucked out of it on the last page and that's that. It is abrupt, but appropriate given the choice Sugar makes about which direction she wants to steer her life towards.

Obviously, fans of Victorian literature and historical fiction would love this book, but really, anyone who loves to lose themselves in an original and gorgeously executed story would enjoy "The Crimson Petal and the White". Do not let the 800 page count intimidate you! The historical research is never rubbed in the reader's face, and while the crux of the action takes a while to get going, there are no lags. Faber's writing is too evocative to drag: even when nothing much is going on, the world still lifts off the page and wraps you up in it's squalid atmosphere. An absolute gem!
Profile Image for Helene Jeppesen.
688 reviews3,625 followers
July 6, 2015
Wow, that ending! After having read so many pages and gone through such an immense journey, I do feel kind of cheated by that ending :)
Nevertheless, I absolutely loved this book and its characters. I loved how it portrays life in Victorian London so realistically and brutally, and I really liked how Michel Faber leaves nothing to the reader's imagination when it comes to the prostitutes and their work.
Yes, this book is about prostitutes and in particular about Sugar and her rises and falls in life. It's a book where the characters change as they grow up, and not always for the better. I was especially fond of the beginning, where the narrator guides you through the story with funny remarks such as "Maybe you would rather follow Sugar now on her journey, but let's move on to another character". However, I was sorry to see that these funny remarks eventually stopped, and the reader was kind of left alone until the very last page.
Almost none of the characters in this book are very likeable, but that's kind of what I liked about it. It's brutal and it's raw, and I've been told that unfortunately, this is Michel Faber's only piece of work that is historical fiction. Nonetheless, I'm definitely going to read more by Michel Faber because he is indeed a very interesting author.
Profile Image for Neale .
310 reviews143 followers
April 24, 2020
A wonderful review just reminded me how much I enjoyed this book and that I did write a review which disappeared along with my account when it was hacked.

Now you would think that, having just said I enjoyed the book, I would be able to remember the review but it was a couple of years ago now.

Anyway, I remember that, the narrative, while still being wonderful, took second place to the amazingly rich characters that populated it. The book also had that beautiful Dickensian aura about it There is just something about that era which seems to produce wonderful stories and characters.

I think I may even go back and give this a reread it's that good.

4.5 Stars. Maybe 5 after the reread. :-)
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,493 followers
August 3, 2016
Here's a sprawling behemoth of a love letter to Victorian novels. Like Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, it gets a charge out of paying homage to Victorian tropes while undermining them: Victorian novels were famously prudish, so Faber gives us descriptions of the toxic prophylactic methods of Victorian prostitutes. This is all good fun.

The gothic and sensation genres are Faber's main touchstones here. Sugar's stint as an infiltrating governess recalls Lady Audley's Secret (as well as a whole group of less remembered governess novels). Faber gets his Wilkie Collins on, too, as we get a peek into Agnes Rackham's diaries.

Unfortunately, it's not as good as The Woman in White: Agnes' diary is way more boring than Marian's, and we're short a Fosco. The second half of this 800+-page tome gets a little slow. I waited for Henry Rackham's story to get interesting - I just assumed it was a matter of time before he started - but he never got around to it. Sugar, left in charge of William's neglected daughter Sophie, ends up exchanging which is way more boring. You'll have some degree of fun with this if you like Victorian novels - it's fun to watch Faber take them apart and put them back together - but it didn't leave me with a deep impression.
Profile Image for Liz  .
150 reviews40 followers
August 6, 2014
In an interview, The Crimson Petal and White’s author, Michael Faber says: “I use the metaphor of a novel being like a prostitute, promising the reader a good time, promising intimacy and companionship”.

If this is the case, boy did I feel like I got a good “fuck” for my moneys worth. At 850+ pages, I thought this tome of a novel was magnificent.

Faber led me by the hand, and brought me to Victorian London, where I fell in and out of love with the characters. The robust writing and detailed descriptions immersed me in every setting from the slums and drear of the Silver Street brothels and pubs, to the respectful shops and homes of the well-to-do. Faber has a way of describing things like chapped, flaky lips; or a prostitute’s plunger-douche in a way that left me wanting more.

Faber gracefully intertwined the lives of many characters, from all walks of life, ( prostitutes, the pious, the insane, the hired-help, and the elite) in a way where I was easily able to connect to the vulnerabilities of each and every character. I loved them and despised them all at once. This novel is most definitely character, not plot, driven.

This book has made my all-time favorites list and is worthy of a reread.
Profile Image for Caro the Helmet Lady.
773 reviews349 followers
May 6, 2020
I promised no spoilers to Cypt. So without any spoilers I can say that this huge book (I had an edition with 950 thin paper pages!!) was devoured by me very fast, surprisingly even to myself, because action wasn't the fastest, characters not the loveliest and nothing new to Victorian London was actually added, in my opinion. Yet Michel Faber has this way of writing with which he conjures you, gently grabs by the hand and then leads you through not the most pleasant places. More like really unpleasant ones - and half of them are heads of his protagonists. And you just can't stop looking. Also, his humour is sometimes quite unexpected - but very on point. I wasn't disappointed by the ending, unlike some of the readers, I think this was the best possible ending.
Definitely going to read The Apple.
Profile Image for Sally Howes.
72 reviews56 followers
September 18, 2014
THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE both is and is not a book about sex. Yes, it follows the life of Sugar, an unusually talented (in more ways than one) whore in Victorian London, but its sex scenes are brief, perfunctory, and relatively infrequent considering the subject matter. If you're looking for a Victorian-era FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, look elsewhere, you won't find it here. What you will find is a uniquely brilliant, unabashedly feminist character study of some memorable examples of women and men dealing with the fraught and unhealthy vacillations between the two polarized attitudes toward sex in Victorian England - extreme sexual repression on the one hand and extreme sexual exploitation on the other. As the narrator comments, "Morally it's an odd period, both for the observed and the observer: fashion has engineered the reappearance of the body, while morality still insists on perfect ignorance of it."

There are so many different facets that make up a story, and in THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, brilliance can be observed in every facet, from the narrative voice and setting of the scenes to the characters and themes that comprise the beating heart of the book. Its present-tense narration is just one means by which this book dominates the reader's mind and senses. The narrator is virtually a discrete character unto himself, a very chummy busybody. I have met some omniscient narrators in my time, but never one as intrusive as this. Luckily, he is intrusive in a playful, friendly, helpful way, steering the reader with a sure hand to the meatiest parts of the world of the story. The narrator has a very dry, ironic sense of humor and a truly razor-sharp, biting wit that is rarely seen nowadays and is a delicious, wicked pleasure to read. His impish turn of phrase sweeps both mischievously and elegantly through the pages of the book. The prose style can perhaps best be described as "spry," flitting nimbly back and forth between different parts of a scene or idea, with many short, sharp, witty asides.

Some books are described as "atmospheric." I realize now that I never knew what the word meant until I read this book. The opening paragraphs plunge you headfirst into the dingy Victorian squalor of Church Lane, and having thus dragged you into its world, the book never lets you escape again. We are led down "a street where people go to sleep not at a specific hour but when the gin takes effect, or when exhaustion will permit no further violence" and are induced to notice that: "The roofs are a crazy jumble, the upper windows cracked and black as the brickwork, and the sky above seems more solid than air, a vaulted ceiling like the glass roof of a factory or a railway station: once upon a time bright and transparent, now overcast with filth." Setting a scene perfectly seems to be another of the author's particular talents. Whether the scene be ridiculous or fraught, the balance between "showing" and "telling" is always just right - and the most telling details are always artfully included.

The characterization in the book is superb, from the main characters down to the most lowly. Faber appears to have an instinctive feeling for the inherent selfishness of the human race, which he manifests uniquely in every character. Some are funny, some are pathetic, some are eccentric, some are calculating, some are innocent - but all are individuals. And Sugar is the most enigmatic of them all. Joining her onstage is William Rackham, the dandy heir to Rackham Perfumeries and frequenter of brothels, who falls under Sugar's spell and decides to rescue her from the brothel owned and run by her mother, Mrs. Castaway, and set her up in style as his exclusive mistress. William's wife, Agnes, a selfish and fragile woman who is rapidly succumbing to madness, is also part of the cast of our little drama, as is William's brother, Henry, a good and godly man who is constantly wrestling, to his mortification, with his own sexual urges, and Emmeline Fox, Henry's friend and doyen of the Rescue Society, which attempts to save "fallen women" from their lives of depravity and find them good, honest - if much less well paid - work.

All of the main characters in this book spend an inordinate amount of time in the oh-so-human pursuit of comparing themselves unfavorably with others (usually each other). One of the more unusual and arresting notions that this story pokes and prods at is the idea that a person only exists inasmuch as they are seen by others to exist. Do we create our own personas or are we created by others? This book has much to say about the absurdity of our belief that we can ever truly know another person - and that we can ever allow another person to know us utterly. Having said that, and despite how patronizing it is for a woman to comment on how well a male author has been able to capture the complex, sometimes contradictory psychology of female characters, in this case, it is so striking that it just cannot be left unsaid: Michel Faber really knows how to write a woman.

The core theme of this book is female sexuality and its relation to practical morality. This theme is examined exhaustively from every possible angle by the book's three leading ladies - Sugar, the intelligent and ambitious whore; Emmeline Fox, the pious but practical redeemer of fallen women; and Agnes Rackham, the impossibly naive and prudish gentlewoman driven mad by a sexual revulsion that seems almost straight out of a Freudian textbook. Then enters the sweet, completely malleable little girl, Sophie Rackham, and the question immediately arises: which attitude and which path will she take to lead her to her own womanhood? The book overall represents a collision between male domination and female subversion of this hegemony. This collision is brought to life in several particular episodes - episodes that are as slyly taunting as they are downright shocking. Structuralist and feminist tropes of the active, rational, logical, dominant man and the passive, irrational, emotional, submissive woman are not merely challenged but are torn to shreds with savage, even maniacal, glee. This book is surprising and unique in almost every way possible. The feminist literary concept of "the pit or the pedestal" (the tendency for female characters to be either irredeemably wicked wantons destined for hell or, conversely, paragons of impossible, unimpeachable virtue, with no realistic middle ground) is played with very artfully, as we hear that Sugar is a prostitute who will do ANYTHING, including things that her colleagues shy away from, yet William Rackham idolizes her as the most perfect woman ever created.

THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE deals with lust in all its many and varied manifestations, and displays the entire spectrum of illness it causes, whether from excessive suppression or excessive expression of carnal desire. There is a very specific kind of madness that is inextricably linked to each position along the spectrum, as demonstrated by each of the book's main characters. Madness in varying forms is ever-present in the story, and in keeping with its Victorian setting, the madness is most decidedly gendered - the madness of lust in the male balanced by the madness of sexual revulsion in the female.

Sugar is a woman who is true to one thing only: her ideal of sisterhood, forged by common experience with all women, whether high or low - the benighted experience of subjugation to the whims and humors of the loathed common enemy, man. Told very early in life by Mrs. Castaway that "'Men are not to ANYONE's taste, dear. Still, they rule the world and we must all fall on our knees before them, hmm?'", Sugar plays men like fish on a line, in a cynical undertaking that is much more sinister than a mere game - her only desire is revenge for the numberless outrages perpetrated against her sex. And she has the smarts to exact a revenge in which its victim never sees it coming or knows whence it came. "A pity, really, that Sugar's brain was not born into a man's head, and instead squirms, constricted and crammed, in the dainty skull of a girl." One of the ways in which she expresses her impotent rage is by writing a manuscript for a novel that details men being tortured for her own vicious satisfaction. This manuscript begins by saying, cynically: "If there is one thing I have learned in my time on this Earth, it is this. All men are the same." Sugar's inability to understand what there could possibly be about a man that could induce a woman to freely and voluntarily love him for his own sake is strangely moving. I have said that THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE is surprising in every way, and this is never more evident than in the semi-role reversal that suggests that it may be possible for the mistress to support and raise up the wife.

The inconvenient and apparently hateful wife is not allowed to be just swept under the carpet in this story; rather, the unfolding of Agnes's "affliction" is very pointedly juxtaposed every step of the way with the story of William and Sugar, so that the reader may never forget her apparent madness and may never cease to wonder what drove her to it. "One who sups with the Devil must use a long spoon; Agnes Rackham's spoon, in supping with her husband, is the length of an oar." For me, Agnes is the most fascinating and complex character of all - she can be self-obsessed, snobbish, spiteful, yet in her childlike madness she is immeasurably pitiable, and it often drives her to speak the most searing truths. For example: "... she knows she must control herself and be demure, she must act as though the world is just the same today as it was yesterday, for her husband is a man and if there's one thing men despise it's happiness in its raw state." William unwittingly feeds and supports Agnes's madness in a myriad of ways. The obsessions and delusions that baffle and distress him the most have their foundations in him. In this book, the distance between men and women is at the same time both infinitesimal and as wide as the ocean - and the cause of illnesses of many kinds.

Agnes resembles Shakespeare's Ophelia in more ways than one, and THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE is subtly but significantly meta-textual, particularly in reference to the works of Shakespeare. The madam named "Mrs. Castaway" also lends the book a positively Dickensian feel, both in her squalid, heartless eccentricity and in her very name itself. But above all, both Sugar and Agnes are writers, although Agnes's prim, bewildered journals are very different from Sugar's vicious, vengeful manuscript - or are they? Both vessels of self-expression have at their heart a fury and a bewilderment at their author's oppression by men. "The difference between men and women is nowhere plainer, thinks Agnes, than in the novels they write. The men always pretend they are making everything up, that all the persons in the story are mere puppets of their imagination, when Agnes knows that the novelist has invented nothing. He has merely patchworked many truths together, collecting accounts from newspapers, consulting real soldiers or fruit-sellers or convicts or dying little girls - whatever his story may require. The lady novelists are far more honest: Dear Reader, they say, this is what happened to ME."

As I made my way through this book, it gradually dawned on me that it was quite unlike any other book I had ever read, which really is saying a lot. And thus, it was only fitting that it should have the most unusual and ambiguous ending of any book I've ever read - which is just the way I like it. It is also certainly one of the most vehemently and invigoratingly feminist books I've read in a long time. Thus, it is only fair that I cede the last word to Mrs. Castaway: "'Wicked is what we can't help being ... The word was invented to describe us. Men love to wallow in sin; we are the sin they wallow in.'"
Profile Image for Jennifer (formerly Eccentric Muse).
468 reviews998 followers
January 6, 2015
Fantastic. The perfect book to end a great year of reads.

Come for the sexy story, stay for the character portraits and technique. There are lots of good reviews of this (see Kelly's, Paul's, Cecily's, Trevor's, and Simon's) - lots of them focus on the length (ho, ho, ho), so besides the rampant double entendres that popped up everywhere, I’ll just tell you a dozen more things that I *loved* about TCP:

1. The narrator: without him/it, the ending would have been unthinkable. And the ending is perfect. No, I’m not going to read The Apple. The way the narrator treated the reader – the subtlety of its chastisement, the ironic/sardonic tone, the allusions to the future – very meta. Early on, the narrator teased the reader about just wanting to get to the sexy bits. The way Faber turned that into something so much deeper, and then – the ending; “you imagine you can make it last forever”; the exhortation to “let me go.” More double entendres. Me = a book, on the surface of it. Yet, what else? That’s the real question at the end of this; not the fate of the characters, imho.

2. Also a structural thing: The ‘following’ theme – related to the social-climbing theme/structure. The narrator follows Caroline to Sugar to Agnes to William and back to Sugar – then it leaves us with Sugar – who starts following Agnes and William (literally – plot-wise) and then Sophie. This occurs in sections that take us from the streets (of St. Giles) to Mrs. Castaway’s to … well, read it. Another play on convention here, I think: isn’t there a name for novels that travel a specific geography? Whatever, I found these structures to be SUPER-clever.

3. The feminist perspective.

4. Victorian sexuality and repression seen through the eyes of all its major archetypes:
a. The wife driven mad by boredom, repressed sexual desire and enforced ignorance, Agnes
b. The tart with a heart, Sugar
c. The self-made manufacturing baron, William
d. The profligate whoremongers and cads, Bodley & Ashwell
e. The social reformer / early suffragette, Emmeline Fox
f. The doctor with the bag of tricks, Dr. Curlew
g. The puritanical self-abuser, Henry
h. The next wave, “I want to be an explorer”, the-future-will-be-different Sophie

5. Sugar’s anger. Sugar’s immense, post-traumatic, repressed-memory driven anger.

6. The inner emotion/motivation and the outer expression of it, modulated, often self-repressed and directed depending on each character’s nature (or nurture?). Speaking of which…

7. Mothering, lack of it. Parenting in general. Sophie’s aloneness, her isolation. SUGAR’s aloneness and isolation … SUGAR’S SELF-MOTHERING. The relationship between Sugar & Sophie.

8. Agnes’s boredom and ‘illness’. The fact we know it was entirely a product of the times. This is what repression – every form, intellectual, sexual, social – does to people.

9. The names: Sugar. Mrs. Fox. Agnes (from the Greek, ‘pure’, ‘chaste’, ‘holy’). William and Henry (the later allusion to Sugar creating a rhyme for Sophie to remember all the kings of England because there are so many “Williams and Henrys”). Sophia: "wisdom" in Greek; name of saint who died of grief after her three daughters were martyred. Sugar, Agnes … but not Sophie herself.

10. The sensory detail. Sugar’s psoriasis; the focus on scent: perfumes/lavender in contrast to the faeces and piss-ridden stench of St. Giles Street. The fact that when Sugar goes back, she can’t stand the smell. The entire use of perfumery/lavender – as a business concern, as an artificial tie-in to the natural world, as something that covers up the smell of poverty.

11. The importance of each of them writing their story: Sugar with her novel (“it’s not going to be one of those ‘Reader, I married him’ types” – see point above and literary allusions; there are plenty to the Brontës – “those Bell sisters; what was their name again?” (I’m paraphrasing Sugar here)). Failed / pretentious, to-be-novelist, William. Agnes’s not-a-diary diary / Book. What happened at the end to these books, and how that ties in with the end's exhortation to "let me go."

12. The literary allusions. The book is called the ‘modern Dickens’ – but then that’s what we call all these new pseudo-Victorians, no? I don’t think that’s exactly what Faber was doing here – he put Dickens right into the story and it felt to me more like he was saying, hey – you reader of Dickens, wipe the romanticism from your eyes when it comes to this time, this place: it’s far darker, far worse, far MORE REAL than you ever imagined. Another good one in this vein is The Quincunx, which – if you’ve read TCP and liked it, is highly recommended.

One of my top reads of 2014. Not to be missed, if you like this kind of thing.
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1,355 reviews502 followers
February 22, 2014
[February 22, 2014] I have just finished watching all four discs of the BBC miniseries, the same one that I referenced in this book review a couple years ago, stating that the miniseries couldn't be as good as the book. I am so full of shit. It could be as good as the book. I still want everyone to read the book, but the miniseries captures the story so well and so faithfully; I found myself falling in love with the story all over again. The actors were fantastic, right down to little Sophie.

Or maybe I just loved everyone's British accents and the movie sucked. Maybe that's the case. I do love a good British accent.

Also of note, my gal Gillian Anderson had a most unexpected role and, by god, that woman is fantastic. She does Cockney so well. She was refined as Lily Bart in House of Mirth, but here she was rough and uncouth and so, so wonderfully believable. Hearts.

Before I get all fan-girl about this book, I'll start out by saying that I didn't expect to enjoy it much at all. It's a story about a prostitute in Victorian London? Meh, okay. How much can be done with that which hasn't already been covered? And for maybe the first chapter or two I continued to feel that way.

But at some point during reading this (I cannot pinpoint where exactly) I realized that someone would get cut if they tried to pry this book out of my hands. I found myself caring about our red-headed heroine, the prostitute Sugar. She is in the business for reasons beyond her own wishes which makes one sympathize with her. We see she's relatively educated, strangely considering the time and the profession, and she has desires that don't involve merely money, particularly not money gained by spreading her legs. There's William Rackham, the gentleman who visits her at the brothel and falls in love with her (in actuality he falls in lust, but so few people can honestly tell the difference) and wishes to provide her a better life.

Except he's already married to Agnes, a sickly woman, ill in the head and the body - oh, who am I kidding? Agnes is crazy. Bat shit crazy. And she is by far my favorite character in the entire book. Maybe because we only got brief glimpses into her mind and her life, but she's the madwoman in the attic, if you will. I've long argued it's the characters we don't see much of (the ones hiding in the shadows, the ones overlooked for whatever reason) that have the most interesting stories. Her story comes out piece by piece, primarily through journal entries, but I wanted more. There could be a full story around Agnes alone, and I wish Faber would write it.

Only a few minor annoyances throughout the story - Faber would often include distracting asides like "As you might already know" or "To clarify for you" (those things have a name, right? What is it?) which detracted from the story. I'm sure it was purposeful in some way but I prefer to be involved in a story from beginning to end - I don't like to be reminded that I'm reading a book. I was invested, so each time Faber included statements like that I was pulled back into the real world which is, honestly, the last place I want to be when I'm reading a particularly good book.

I understand there's a BBC miniseries of this book which I now look forward to checking out. Though as far as I'm concerned, it can't possibly be as good as the book - the images in my mind are satisfying and I have no real interest in seeing how someone else imagined the characters or the setting. But at the same time, I am curious. This wasn't a short book and there are more than a handful of characters - I'm eager to see if everyone is included.

And now I am back in the real world - it's warmer and safer than London in 1870s in Silver Street or even in William Rackham's house - but I already miss this story. I can't even say I love the ending, but I'm not disappointed. I'm only disappointed in that there's not a sequel.

(Are you listening, Faber? WRITE A SEQUEL.)
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