Michel Faber

"The Crimson Petal and the White "

(Reviewed by Teri Davis NOV 15, 2003)

Oh, to be engulfed with the poetic flow of words as in a Dickens' novel was how I felt upon reading The Crimson Petal and the White. With the escape of this book, I was vividly transported into the nineteenth century and feeling for the prostitute, Sugar. Any book that has me so strongly identifying and longing for a better life for for the main character makes me want to recommend all readers to notice it.

The Crimson Petal and the White is a story of one woman, a prostitute named Sugar. "My name is Sugar, I am what you would call a Fallen Woman, but I assure you I did not fall--I was pushed."

Sugar is an exceptional hooker in that she does things that other prostitutes will not do, and she is considered to be a little higher in the hierarchy. William Rackham is a dreamer who dreams of being a novelist. When we meet him, he is having financial problems since his father will not allow him to have more money until William is willing to show interest in the family business of perfume making. With Sugar's help and inspiration, William takes over his father's business and becomes financially profitable.

William is also married to a woman who has given birth to Sophie, but neither parent visits or spends any time or shows interest in the child. Agnes, William's wife, has severe emotional problems and really believes she is dying from "bleeding" infrequently. No one has ever informed her that this is a rite to womanhood. Consequently, she rejects her husband sexually and refuses to recognize her daughter. Fortunately, the family is wealthy enough to have a nurse take care of their daughter, Sophie.

Sugar is bought by William for his personal use. He hears of her reputation from his friends, but secretly hides their relationship while providing all her needs. Sugar spends her days waiting for William as well as spying on the family. During her walks to see where William really is, Agnes sees Sugar in a white dress and identifies Sugar as her own personal guardian angel. Sugar eventually convinces William to move her into his home and to allow her to be Sophie's new governess. Their relationship changes with the move, even though there still are a few personal visits. William rejects Sugar more while she builds a loving and trusting relationship with Sophie, William's daughter. When a doctor discovers Sugar's pregnancy, William chooses to conveniently dismiss her.  So what happens to Sugar? I'm not telling.

From comparing notes with numerous other readers, people tend to either love or strongly hate this book for a variety of reasons. People criticize the book for having too little action. We are dealing with human relationships between the characters in the book. I agree that it can not easily be made into an adventure movie, but aren't people's choices and situations also fascinating if discovered by a truly artistic writer?

Also, the ending has been criticized as being inconclusive. I felt closure for William and Agnes Rackman, easily said since Agnes died, but also easily said if the reader began to understand William and his values and are ready to accept the subtleties implied.

Any reader that enjoys a good Dickensian style novel is bound to enjoy this as much as I and like myself will be drawn to continually read this book with no regard to the 835 pages. Supposedly this novel took Mr. Faber twenty years to write, if this is true I can certainly understand it; this artistic masterpiece entertwines so many threads. The "push" of Sugar from being a Fallen Woman to the "push" of Sugar choosing to make decisions for herself shows the caring and love the author had for this character. To me every minute he spent writing this book was definitely worth my time to read it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 628 reviews

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About the Author:

Michel FaberMichel Faber was born in Holland and grew up in Australia. He learned English as a second language (after Dutch) and uses it with inspired gusto. He began writing The Crimson Petal and the White in 1981, while still a student at Melbourne University. His work has been published in 20 countries and received several literary awards. Since 1993 he has lived on a farm in the Scottish Highlands.
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