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Historical Fiction Review – The Crimson Petal and the White



The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)


Ramblings from a Reader…Thoughts on ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’

I’ve had ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber on my to-be-read shelf for about 5 years.  Yes, I know, it’s a long time to have a book taking up valuable real estate on a to-be-read shelf.  But it’s a long book and I felt I needed to be in the right mood to read it.  I’m not even sure how one goes about being in the right mood for a book about dirty brothels, drunken blackguards, sickly prostitutes, and crazy wives.  But alas, it is what it is.  Over three weeks ago I delved into the dark, disturbing life of the prostitute Sugar and I have finally emerged. I have some frustration because of the book itself and the length of time it took me to read it. I’m starting to think these lines in my furrowed brow could take a while to smooth out.

Here’s the quick lowdown on the book: Sugar is a prostitute.  William is a man about to inherit the family’s perfume business.  They meet because William is out-about-town with his no-good (my opinion, they’re really supposed to be upstanding members of Society) friends and these friends mention the sexual expertise of Sugar.  William must have her.  Meanwhile, William’s wife Agnes is slipping further and further into her crazed mind and his brother Henry is fighting an internal struggle of religion and self-indulgence.  That’s it in a nutshell.  I don’t want to give away the details if you’re planning to read it.

My discomfort with the book began just a few pages into my reading. I’m rather conservative so I had some difficulty wanting to read through the explicit descriptions of some of the sexual exploits of the characters.  I’ll just say if you think there are some crazy things happening in the world today, you would be gobsmacked by the goings-on in 1870s London.  Well, in brothels and back alleys, anyway.  The backstabbing and cruelty in the ballrooms and theatres during the Season still happen almost every day in modern society and, unfortunately, it seems ordinary. Thus my furrowed brow develops.  Do I really want to read this?  At this point, not really, but I hate to give up on a book so I’ll stick with it.

After reading for quite a while I thought to myself, ‘Ok, I see what Faber might be trying to do here.  There’s going to be more to this than romps in some dirty sheets.  There’s going to be a deeper social and moral message’ but I was on page 338 when this happened…that’s a long time to wait for that kind of realization.  William is whining about his need to participate in the Season’s events and he exclaims, ‘I blame Society!’  This is just one of many occasions when William fails to see his true ineptness as a husband, father, brother, and businessman.  There are always others to blame and he refuses to look inward.  This annoys me.  I don’t like reading books about characters I don’t care about and I really don’t care about William. I mean, I really don’t care about him. And even though I don’t like William, the reality is there: society and its ‘regulations’ put people in situations they might wish to avoid.  It’s a situation of play the game or else.  And, when I think about it, do I need to like William? Will the message be insightful enough that I can get past William’s annoyances?  Should I care so much whether or not he understands the error of his ways?  Perhaps not.  Ok, the furrowed brow is starting to smooth.

Sugar, the prostitute turned mistress to William, is a much more complete character.  Thankfully I notice some growth in her as a person and that rescues the book for me.  I would hate to have read over 800 pages to end up feeling the same way about Sugar as I did about William (hoping he would get trampled by an oncoming carriage).  One of the more powerful scenes for me has Sugar visiting with fellow prostitute Caroline.  Caroline is content to believe her relationship with Sugar is just as it was before Sugar became William’s mistress; but during her time with William, Sugar begins to change.  I think she finally sees her true self underneath all the layers of protection she created during her life as a prostitute.  She is uncomfortable for being unable to connect with Caroline and I believe she feels disgusted with herself and her past.  But at the same time, she’s at a loss of how to proceed to become a new, better person.

And don’t we all, at some point in our lives, feel a similar type of discomfort?  We reconnect with a childhood friend only to discover we have nothing in common anymore and can’t wait for the reunion to be done.  We gather with family only to awaken to the reality that we’re the black sheep they can’t or won’t understand.  We meet up with old friends only to come face-to-face with the knowledge we don’t like the person we were in the past and hurry to convince ourselves we aren’t like that anymore.  We long for a change in our lives only to realize after the change happens it doesn’t offer us the joy or fulfillment we thought it would.

I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can recognize we are not always treading the path that will lead us to happiness and contentment.  We get sidetracked.  We get lured in by the promise that this person, this job, this location will be the key.  Like Sugar, we direct our frustration, anger, and desire to be accepted into people and activities that aren’t always worth our time or effort.  When, all the time, the key to our happiness is within us, we just have to recognize it and do something about it.

I think my furrowed brow is easing.  I think I’m willing to accept the things I didn’t like about the book and recognize what I perceive as its moral: no matter where we come from or our experiences, we can help ourselves and do better.  Our version of better might not be how someone else would define it (indeed, I don’t know if other readers will agree with Sugar’s actions at the end of the novel) but we need to put it into practice anyway.  It’s not exactly what I expected take away from the book and I’m not sure it’s the message Faber thought he was sending, but I’m going to accept it anyway.

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2 Responses to “Historical Fiction Review – The Crimson Petal and the White”

  1. Amy Peck says:

    Thoughtful review. For a pleasant shock read Faber’s Under the Skin. I couldn’t believe it was the same writer. Brief, brutal and unforgettable–it may not sound like it but I highly recommend it.

  2. Lisa Balch says:

    I read the book many years ago and I loved the way the beginning pulled me in, I was hooked from the start. I stayed awake several nights to finish Sugar’s story. I strongly disliked William. I kept waiting for something ‘more’ during the whole book. I never could put my finger on what it was exactly but I held this extreme anticipation of … its going to take a sudden turn and the balance of power will shift. The ending infuriated me. I honestly went to the book store and looked at another copy to be sure I hadnt missed pages from my book. Silly but I just simply couldnt believe that was IT. I felt cheated.

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