Book Review: The Crimson Petal and the White

Hello, everyone! Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the good ol’ U.S of A, so I wanted to take some time to give thanks for my favorite book The Crimson Petal and the White  by Michel Faber. I first read this book in ninth grade and found it to be an incredibly dense and challenging read. At 864 pages, it’s a real brick of a book, packed with intricate historical detail and interwoven with many characters. But even during the slow and difficult parts, Faber’s one-of-a-kind prose and deft storytelling kept me hooked. I now read this book at least once a year. The Crimson Petal and the White is a masterpiece of fiction and it inspires me to keep writing, so that maybe, someday, I can write one of my own. 

Such a cool cover!

Plot Synopsis: Set in London’s Gilded Age, the story follows 19-year-old Sugar, a voraciously intelligent prostitute stifled by her circumstances, and William Rackham, the idle son of manufacturing giant Henry Rackham, as William falls in love with Sugar and takes her as his mistress. With her help, William takes control of the family business and sees his status rise in London society, while Sugar escapes the brothel and revels in her new life of luxury. As the era implies, however, misery lies beneath their gilded happiness. Plagued by his mentally-ill wife Agnes and his pious brother Henry, William struggles with his public image and Sugar obsesses over their future. As their life grows more complicated, Sugar must decide if she wants to remain William’s mistress, or become something more than she could have ever imagined. 

Romola Garai as Sugar in the BBC adaptation

My take: Many critics have described Faber’s style as Dickensian with a modern, sexual twist, with which I agree. He treats the gorgeous and the grotesque with equal care and does a fantastic job of contrasting the modern advances of the upper echelons of 1870s London with the poverty and decay that characterized its underbelly. Crimson is foremost a fictional work, but Faber thoroughly immerses the reader in the unfamiliar world of this London, which is quite unlike the rather wholesome city featured in Dickens. 

Faber includes a lot of sex and violence, both in graphic detail. This can be unnecessary at times, but Faber’s goal is to portray true domesticity with all of its warts, so he would be remiss in glossing over chamber pots and nosebleeds. While I would say that the novel can be difficult to read and at times  overly gruesome, his love for pulp never supersedes his desire to tell a good story. His writing style might not be for everyone, but as someone who really loves the small details, I find it to be endlessly entertaining. 

The plot of the novel is pretty basic, following Sugar’s rise in society and its consequences. It’s like a twisted Cinderella story if the fairy tale included blow jobs and anti-pregnancy douches. What I find most exceptional about Crimson, and why I keep returning to it year after year, is the character work. Faber crafted them with exquisitely loving detail, and no character is short shrifted in this work. Even a character like Caroline, who we see maybe 4 times in the whole novel, is fully realized with a history, hopes and dreams, fears, and secrets. As for our main characters, including William, Sugar, William’s wife Agnes, his brother Henry, and Henry’s unrequited love Emmeline Fox, we get to know them as intimate acquaintances. There is not a single character who I can say felt less than wholly real to me. 

My favorite character is Agnes because she’s exactly the type of character I would hate if she was written by anyone other than Faber. She’s the “perfect woman” trope that I hate: fairy-tale beautiful and thin with a birdlike voice and childlike innocence. She’s the type of heroine that you see in Gilded Age romances. Faber uses Agnes to mock that trope and turn it on its head. On the outside Agnes is perfect, but as Faber is quick to point out, on the inside she’s deeply troubled, mentally-ill, and trapped in a marriage with a man she despises. She’s selfish, immature, and naive, yet under Faber’s care the reader can’t feel anything for her but sympathy and pity. He does this with all of his characters. The pious reverend wannabe Henry is secretly overcome with lust for his truest friend Emmeline, the virtuous widow Emmeline feels equally amorous for Henry, and Sugar, who in any other story would be the man’s hot mistress, is witty, intelligent, lost, and insecure. Faber made me feel for all of them as if they were own my friends. And what greater gift can you receive from a book than this kind of intimacy? 

William in the BBC adaptation

I don’t have many quibbles with this book. I think it’s a work of genius. But I do think that it improves among many readings, mostly because some of the events in the book happen abruptly and are difficult to digest. The death of one character (who I won’t spoil), left me bereft on the first read and I found it difficult to understand why Faber would have chosen to include it. After many readings, however, I’ve come to regard Crimson as less of a novel and more of a very very long vignette. The lives of Sugar and William started before Crimson and continue long afterwards. The novel only captures a snap-shot. Faber is writing about more than these few years. He’s setting up their lives. So even though I find some of the events in the novel upsetting, I understand them as existing as pieces of a larger whole and that makes me feel more content. Tragedy, after all, is an essential part of a Victorian narrative. 

Final Consensus: I envy all of you who will get to read this book for the first time. You may love or it you may hate it, but you won’t be able to deny the expert craftmanship behind the story. If you’re a fan of Victorian history, you’ll adore Faber’s attention to detail, and if you’re a fan of Victorian narratives, you’ll appreciate his twist on the genre. But you don’t need to be a fan of either of those niches to like this book. You just need to be a fan of good literature. 

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