Wednesday, June 23, 2010

REVIEW: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Welcome to 19th Century Victorian London-in this novel the part of London that ladies who lunch would never take you to. This part of London is where a lovely "lady" can be purchased for an evening's entertainment. It is here in this seedy part of London that we meet our narrator who invites us to follow several different characters along until we reach the one of most importance to the story: Sugar the captivating well read prostitute who is willing to do anything for her clients and dreams of publishing her bawdy novel which "speaks for all prostitutes". Sugar is employed at Mrs. Castaway's. Mrs. Castaway, as it turns out, is Sugar's mother who introduced her to the business at a young age. A more cold and unfeeling person you will not find in this novel.

Sugar's fortunes change when she meets William Rackham-head of Rackham's perfumes. He is so captivated with Sugar's intellect and her bedroom talents that he decides to make her his mistress. He removes her from Mrs. Castaway's and sets her up in her own home, visiting her when he can. In addition to his work, William is also husband to Agnes Rackham who while lovely, is also quite mad. William cannot bring himself to have Agnes committed so she alternates between causing scenes, vomiting, and making a spectacle of herself at social functions to being completely sedated by her doctor. She even refuses to acknowledge her daughter, 5 year old Sophie.

Sugar soon feels trapped by her new life as William's mistress. She spends her days following him around secretly to find out everything about him to use to her advantage and waiting around for him to visit. She is constantly striving to remain in the forefront of William's affections. She decides that in order to be closer to William she should take the position of Sophie's Governess and move into the Rackham home. This soon becomes a mistake as she devolves from object of desire to just another servant of the household. When Sugar reads the writing on the wall she decides to take destiny into her own hands.

I have a jumble of thoughts about this one. Sugar is a fascinating no holds barred character. It is clear that she doesn't really care for William Rackham as a person but just wants to keep her place with him secure for her own ambitions. That may make her sound rather callous but she isn't that way at all. Sugar obviously feels betrayed by her mother for forcing her into this kind of life and she longs for the freedom to be admired for her intellect and not for the bag of tricks she has for pleasing her customers. She shows her soft side in unexpected places-humoring poor mad Agnes who thinks she's an angel, caring for Sophie whom she forms a genuine attachment to, visiting fellow prostitutes who are dying of disease. She is a smart, complex character whose only mistake was deciding to join the Rackham household. Once she did so she lost her allure and became part of the routine and consequently lost her hold on William.

William is not a particularly likable man. When we meet him he is self indulgent fool and as we journey along with him he becomes more responsible as far as his profession but is just as much a fool. He fails to see (or just plain ignores) the deplorable treatment his wife is getting for her madness. You can't help but feel sorry for the lady. You also can't help but feel sorry for Sophie Rackham-the young daughter who has spent more time shut away in her nursery with the servants than with either of her parents.

Now the reason why I had jumbled thoughts about this one is because the book really has no plot. It revolves entirely around Sugar and her actions which is perfectly fine. I could never quite figure out where the book was going. Actually even when I finished reading it I couldn't figure it out. If you are a reader who really hates the "What the hell was that?" kind of endings (think the fade out scene on the last episode of the Sopranos or the end of the movie the Wrestler) then you will probably not like the ending of this book. I am one of those people who do not like these types of endings so although I thoroughly enjoyed the book I did not care at all for the ending. I'm not quite sure how to rate a book like that. The writing was straight forward and Faber writes the book gritty like it should be. Being a prostitute in 19th century London is not a flowery glamorous profession and he doesn't write it like it is and I really appreciated that. I enjoyed following the myriad of characters but I was left wanting with the way the author wrote the ending. I did immensely enjoy the vivid picture he painted of London and it's society at the time. I got a real feel for the time period even though the focus was on the characters and not really on London.

Also I found the back flap to be more than a little misleading. It states Sugar starts her social climb from Mrs. Castaway's brothel with William Rackham. This would indicate to me that she starts with William and soon leaves him on what will be a meteoric rise in social status. This is not the case at all! She is with William the whole book. Also it mentions the evil Mrs. Castaway like she is some sinister character who plays a big part in this book. Again, no. She hardly features at all in the story. I'm thinking the person who wrote the teaser for the back of the book didn't even read the dang thing. That's not a mark against the book but it is rather annoying.

Finally, we are guided along by this mysterious narrator the whole book and he or she introduces us to a variety of characters. The way in which the author writes this narrator introducing us to the character is quite fun but we are never told who is guiding us along on our journey. I would have thought that would have been revealed at some point.

So here is the score card:

Writing Style: A
Setting: A
Characters: A
Plot: D
Unexpected Twists: B+
Ending: D

That would be a yes I would recommend it IF you are willing invest the time to read a 900+ book with fascinating characters but a not so great ending. There was just so much here. This is the lengthiest review I've written in awhile and I'm sure I've forgotten to mention a few things!

If you are looking for a great story about a highly ambitious prostitute in 1600's London I recommend Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. This is just as much of a time investment as Crimson Petal but personally I think it is the better read of the two.


  1. this is one of my most favorite books ever! Lovely review!

  2. Great review! Now, here's the million-dollar question: Would you recommend this book for men, or is it more of a Phillipa Gregory-bodice-ripper-type book?

  3. No gooey romance in this one so I think it would be ok for men. Its not like Philippa Gregory at all :)

  4. I bought this book online after it was highly recommended in one of my favourite book review magazines, and when I got it I had a mild heart attack at the length of the thing! So there it sits on my TBR shelf until a time when I have a lot of hours to devote to reading it. Maybe next time I'm on a plane!