I don’t even know where to begin with my review of The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber. It’s the longest book I’ve read in a while probably since the Harry Potter books at 895 pages. This novel was a bestseller and was turned into a mini-series in 2011 but honestly I hadn’t heard of it. So why did I choose to read it/how did I hear about it? I first heard about it a year or two ago from blogger The Most Happy. She writes book reviews pretty frequently and she had expressed her love for this book on more than one occasion. Her thumbs up on this book had me intrigued and I had made a mental note to check it out. Then when I was rewatching all of Gilmore Girls in preparation for A Year in the Life there was a scene in an episode where Emily Gilmore mentions how she was reading the book and was fascinated about this prostitute named Sugar in Victorian London. So now I had to read it!
With the book being so big I had no time til the end of the school year/work year for me to really get the chance to read it.
So yes, one of the main characters is named Sugar and she is a prostitute in Victorian London. But it’s not as simple as that. I mean, if it was, that’d be a very long novel about the life of a prostitute in the 1800s!
The style of the writing is quite interesting in that the author writes it like he is actually inviting the reader in to follow these characters around. It’s like you’re being dropped in to late 1800s London where the story has already begun. Likewise at the end of the novel it’s like you are plucked right back out as the narrator says, “And to you also: goodbye. An abrupt parting, I know, but that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?” Faber makes the reader a part of the novel by writing in a way that makes it seem like you are physically following the characters around, unseen, like a spirit in some alternate reality. For example in one of the first chapters of the book, before we’re introduced to the major players, we are following a prostitute named Caroline around. Faber writes/the narrator tells us “Now prepare yourself. You have not much longer with Caroline before she introduces you to a person with slightly better prospects.”
Okay, so now that we have the style of writing out of the way, let’s get to the story – without giving too much away of course. The story centers around Sugar, a young woman of only 19 although she seems much older probably because she was forced into a life of prostitution as a child. She has become quite popular with the gentlemen who frequent these “houses of ill repute” and it’s very interesting or peculiar why because she’s not described as being a great beauty or having a particularly amazing body. In fact, she’s described as sort of gangly and she has a skin disorder (maybe psoriasis?) which leaves her skin dry and scaly. She even frequently chews at the skin on her lips! In any case, she’s much sought after and one day, our other main character, William Rackham, the heir to a perfume manufacturing empire enters her life and becomes really enamored with her. Over time, she becomes his mistress because he can’t bear the thought of anyone else having her. The novel takes place over the course of a year or so and a lot happens in that time!
While reading this book I jotted down some notes and page numbers of things that stuck out to me that I thought I might want to touch upon in my review. But 895 pages later and a lot of those quotes or moments don’t seem that important anymore. What I want to talk about is the underlying feeling of heartbreak and unfairness that is portrayed in the novel that I personally can relate to and I think others can as well. Obviously I’m not a prostitute, but I think elements of Sugar’s situation can be related to many relationships.
Sugar starts off in the novel with the upper hand. You may think because she’s a hooker and her suitor is a wealthy man of good breeding that he would have the upper hand, but think again. When William Rackham first meets and engages in sexual relations with Sugar, he is totally enamored by her. She is perfect in his eyes and he will do anything to make her happy. She sees him as just another wealthy client, but if he’s going to offer her a way out of that house she will play along. She is smart and knows how to work him so that he’s basically eating out of the palm of her hand. But as the novel progresses and she can actually envision a life with William and a much better life for herself, it all seems to be slipping away from her. She holds on for dear life and I really felt for her when she’s just trying to grab a foothold in this life that she has before it’s snatched away. It’s heartbreaking because she really does a lot for William, and I don’t just mean sexually, but she puts in a lot of work in to their relationship and as her attachment grows, his fades. This is what I find to be relatable for many people. How many times has someone liked you more than you liked them and they are really persistent for you to give them a chance and once you’ve grown to actually really like them, they treat you like you’re yesterday’s news? Or even for longer relationships. There are so many stories of people who put in some many years of their lives with someone only to be dropped suddenly.
It’s sad and gut wrenching to see Sugar go from this woman with confidence and power to one who is now free from the chains of prostitution but doing anything she can to please a man and not upset him so he will stay with her. For context on this change:
- Pg. 187, William wakes Sugar up and says: ” ‘Do you…Do you like me?’ She laughs throatily, turns her head against his, nuzzles his cheek. ‘Oh, William, yessss,’ she says. ‘You’re my rescuer, aren’t you? My champion…”
- Then on Pg. 821: “After a while, her sobs subside, and her hands grow weary of clawing the pages. She slumps against her dresser, surrounded by crumpled wads of paper, her naked toes lost under them. What if William should come in and find her like this? She crawls forward on her knees and picks up the paper-balls, tossing them into the fireplace.”
There’s that relatable transformation of being in control of your fate to bending over backwards to please someone or make them love you. I think this novel really highlights the inequality between women and men, especially during those times, but can be relatable in some ways today.
Growing up, Sugar is repeatedly told things like, “Men are not to anyone’s tastes, dear. Still they rule the world and we must all fall on our knees before them”.
I’m happy that Sugar isn’t a completely tragic figure. In fact, despite some setbacks I think she is still a pretty strong character. She grew up being taught that men rule the world, but she does a pretty good job of paving her own way using her intelligence, street smarts, and iron will.
Sugar is not the only strong female in the novel. Emmeline Fox is another character who is a bit tragic, but also won’t be pushed around by men. I suspect young Sophie Rackham would grow to be a fiercely, independent woman as well.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. I really felt for the women in the novel and their troubles and if they were men they wouldn’t have to deal with half or more of these things. My only quibble with the novel is that on more than one occasion when Sugar is feeling paranoid or anxious about William potentially moving on from her she tries to banish the thought from her head and blaming it on the fact that “her courses” must be coming soon. This annoyed me a little, especially coming from a male author, because it seemed like such an easy cop out to say “Oh she’s acting a little crazy. Must be her period!” What do you think?
Anyway, this novel did take a little while for me to get in to but after a while I started to become invested in the characters and I really wanted to know what would happen.
Have you read this novel before?
And just for fun – some magic! Or just the rewind function on Instastories 🙂