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198 of 207 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dickens with a twist
This was a big, hefty mama of a book. At 894 pages it isn't what you'd call a light read. But what a book! Before I even start talking about the story let me say that this is one of the most well crafted trade paperbacks that I've picked up in a while. The pages are heavy and smooth with a silky texture that is a pleasure to touch. Combine that with an intricate and...
Published on October 10, 2003 by J. Meegan

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81 of 83 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, authentic, believable and quite heartless.
Words for this review are hard to find. Faber has penned a mostly brilliant piece here, rich in detail with fully developed characters that we come to know and care about despite their flaws. The first hundred pages are slow going but it quickly gathers momentum and the result is a gripping read.
(Some spoilers follow).
My problem, and one that I apparently...
Published on January 12, 2003 by robulus


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198 of 207 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dickens with a twist, October 10, 2003
This review is from: The Crimson Petal and the White (Paperback)
This was a big, hefty mama of a book. At 894 pages it isn't what you'd call a light read. But what a book! Before I even start talking about the story let me say that this is one of the most well crafted trade paperbacks that I've picked up in a while. The pages are heavy and smooth with a silky texture that is a pleasure to touch. Combine that with an intricate and fascinating story and it makes for a book that is almost impossible to put down.
Some readers pointed out that the story doesn't really go anywhere at all. I agree. That's what makes it even more remarkable that I found it to be so compelling. The truth is...this is a "slice of life" story -- a year or so in the lives of a variety of odd, interesting characters. This is a character-driven book....not plot driven. If you're looking for grandiose, dramatic scenes, don't bother. If you like your stories to wrap up nicely at the end...then really don't bother. But if you like the idea of being a fly on the wall...getting to know a group of people and all their messy idiosyncrasies in great detail, this is the book for you.
The characters in this book were hard to like and hard to dislike. At times I found myself feeling sympathy for the least deserving of individuals, and getting irritated with the ones who seemed to deserve my sympathy the most. These were some of the most human characters I've come across in a while -- glorious in their imperfections and maddeningly difficult to pin down. Faber also does a magnificent job painting a picture of the time and place...his descriptions were some of most vivid that I've ever encountered in a novel and they involve ALL the senses.
I would not recommend this book for people made squeamish by frank sex scenes or those who are attracted to the lighter side of Victoriana (no fairies here). This is a story that gives equal attention to all sides of 19th century urban life--dark squalor, pristine elegance, and everything inbetween.
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81 of 83 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, authentic, believable and quite heartless., January 12, 2003
By 
robulus (Annandale, NSW Australia) - See all my reviews
Words for this review are hard to find. Faber has penned a mostly brilliant piece here, rich in detail with fully developed characters that we come to know and care about despite their flaws. The first hundred pages are slow going but it quickly gathers momentum and the result is a gripping read.
(Some spoilers follow).
My problem, and one that I apparently share with the majority of reviewers, is the ending. I wasn't expecting a fairytale ending, Faber's characters were far too realistic to suddenly flout convention altogether and end up living happily ever after, but I felt I deserved a conclusion, even a tragic one. Faber owed it, it should have been the crowning achievement of the novel to take this totally unsustainable relationship and conclude it.
When I turned to that last page, I reread it four or five times, searching for some hint of the fate of the characters in which I had just invested a week of my life. When I found none, I felt as if my heart had been wrenched out and thrown on the ground. As I reflected on the book my sense of engagement and excitement was replaced by the growing realisation that it is in fact an extremely grim read with light rarely penetrating the dark.
It may be accurate, reflecting the world even to the extent that it has no clear beginning or end, but ultimately it is a bleak, disturbing and disappointing experience.
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106 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More, please!, September 16, 2002
By 
If you are one of those people who thinks most of the books worth reading were written in the 19th century, by people like Dickens and Trollope and Hardy, you are in for a rare treat. Faber's sprawling, gritty, lush Victorian novel, reminiscent of the best of all three, brings to life the world of 1875 London, from the grimiest, rat-infested alleys to the overladen dining tables and "servant-infested passageways" of the rich. In the course of his 834 pages Faber takes the reader to factories and taverns, music halls and fashionable Season parties, grubby brothels and formal calls.
Faber (whose first novel, "Under the Skin," is totally different) takes advantage of his 21st century perspective to discreetly drop the Victorian circomlocution and ornate flourishes when the action calls for brevity. Not that you'll notice as his eloquence and skill as stylist and storyteller fuse so perfectly. The modern perspective also allows for graphic detail. There's a lot of sex, though not much eroticism. His protagonist, Sugar, started life as a prostitute at age 13, and sex is a living to her, not a pleasure. There's a lot of dirt and degradation and the politics of class and sex are ugly and entrenched. Yet it's a story full of life and hope and real people.
An omniscient narrator begins by inviting the reader into the lowest slums to begin making the connections without which meeting the story's loftier characters would be impossible: "their servants wouldn't have let you in the door." It's a cold, sleety November night. "The cobblestones beneath your feet are wet and mucky, the air is frigid and smells of sour spirits and slowly dissolving dung." Caroline, an unlettered country girl, finding in prostitution a refuge from the numbing, slow starvation of factory work, meets a former colleague who has gone up a rung in the world, Sugar.
Tha narrator fades away (although returning to tell us, for instance, that Agnes Rackham has a brain tumor, which will never be found) after introducing William Rackham, reluctant perfumery heir and tormented would-be artist, and the story gathers steam.William's allowance has been drastically curtailed by his father, impatient to hand over the reins. Forced to buy a ready-made hat, to make do with one less maid, William is miserable, and hearing of a prostitute who will do "anything," he resolves to be distracted.
But Sugar, as well-read as she is willing, captivates him. So obsessed does William become that he masters his father's hated business in order to restore his allowance and monopolise her. William discovers an interest in the arcana of perfume and soap and his fortunes ascend. As do Sugar's. She now has more time to read and to work on her novel - a pornagraphic opus of the violent death of heartless men.
She also has less freedom of movement. As point of view shifts between Sugar and the Rackham household, Faber contrasts Sugar's situation with Agnes Rackham's, William's sheltered, delicate and deranged wife. A virtual prisoner, alternately pampered and medically abused, Agnes' struggles to fit into the social world she was groomed for - her beautiful wardrobe, her total lack of biological knowledge, her constraints of behavior and speech - grow increasingly grotesque and heart-wrenching.
Sugar, transferred into a home of her own, given more money than she can spend, fights boredom with an obsession to learn everything about the Rackhams so as to secure her position. Distanced from her old life, she grows fastidious. The ugly violence of her novel repels, even embarrasses her. Agnes' delicacy attracts her. As Sugar's fortunes entwine more closely with the Rackhams,' Faber introduces a "Jane Eyre" element, underscoring the gulf between that novel and this.
There are a myriad of lesser characters who play crucial parts in breadth and development - William's older brother, Henry, a gentle religious zealot tormented by his own sexuality; Emmeline Fox, a consumptive, tart-tongued widow and the object of Henry's affection, who evangelizes among prostitutes; William's old school chums, a pair of repulsive but amusing dandies; the Rackham servants, Sugar's horrible mother, various prostitutes. Faber shifts point-of-view at will, giving human voice to various levels of society and Victorian thought. His characters are masterful. Even the worst of them arouse empathy (well, maybe not Sugar's mother), and the best - Sugar and Agnes - practically step off the page. And in the end, it's William, despite his worldly freedom and privilege (or because of it) who is the most constrained, his soul the most confined.
In an interview with his publisher, Faber comments on character: "One of the most absurd tragedies about us as a species is that each of us is convinced we're misunderstood, alone, a misfit. There doesn't seem to be anybody in the world who feels they're what a standard-issue human being ought to be. Literature reminds us of this paradox-our specialness and our commonality." Faber's book is another paradox - a novel with perfect Victorian sensibilities, which could only have been written in our time.
I could go on and on, but I've run out of space. Suffice to say if this book was another 800 pages I'd be happy.
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67 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tennyson's epic poem about feminism retold, August 29, 2003
By 
Seemingly overlong and decidedly graphic (in both the vulgar and literal senses), Faber's magnum opus, it's true, crams a 200-page plot into an 830-page book. Yet, while certainly engrossing and often difficult to set aside, "The Crimson Petal" is primarily a character novel, heavy on atmosphere, light on action, postmodern in its knowingness, and unapologetic in its grimy, lurid detail. (Think "Jane Eyre" meets "The French Lieutenant's Woman.")
Readers baffled by the title may appreciate knowing its source, which also provides clues to the novel's characters and themes. The phrase is lifted from Tennyson's epic poem "The Princess" (the source for Gilbert and Sullivan's "Princess Ida"), in which Ida becomes an advocate of women's rights, breaks her engagement to a prince of a neighboring kingdom, and establishes a university. The prince and two buffoonish friends sneak into the school dressed as women, and various and sundry events ensue, culminating in a pitched battle between the prince's peers and the princess's army, during which the three men are seriously injured. Placed under the women's care, the prince eventually wins over Ida, but only after converting to feminism and admitting that he should "be more of a woman, she of man." While the bed-ridden prince pleads his case, Ida reads the following song, which begins and ends as follows:
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font;
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me....
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.
In Faber's novel, "the crimson petal, now the white" is Sugar, a teenage prostitute who learns her trade from her own mother but who manages both to obtain a respectable, if unconventional, education and to retain a precocious level of dignity. Her ability to transcend the limits of her "station," as well as her willingness to "do anything you ask of me," leads Sugar to her prince, William Rackham, an heir to a perfumery who is stymied by his own artistic pretensions. Sugar becomes far more to William than an illicit relationship: she succeeds first as his mistress, then as his unacknowledged business partner, and then as... but to tell you more would be unfair.
The novel features four other characters, each uniquely displaying the nature of the fraught relationships between men and women: Agnes Rackham, William's near-mad wife, whose Victorian naivety is so complete that she is unable to comprehend how she came to be "with child"; Sophie, his six-year-old daughter, who is squirreled away out of view of everyone but the servants; Henry, his brother, who is called by religious devotion but who considers himself too impure to enter the clergy; and Emmeline Fox, a widow and Henry's close friend, whose eccentric opinions, along with her activities to save prostitutes from mortal and physical danger, scandalize other members of "Society"--and present Henry with more temptations than he can bear.
Various elements of Tennyson's poem work their way into the novel, such as the characters of Bodley and Ashwell, who mirror the prince's partners-in-crime, Cyrial and Florian. The poem also supplies clues to the ending, which some readers find "sudden" and "ambiguous." In Tennyson's fairy-tale version, the prince understands that honest empathy and social reform, not stealth and belligerence, are how to gain admission into the company of women. He says to Ida:
"Blame not thyself too much," I said, "nor blame
Too much the sons of men and barbarous laws;
These were the rough ways of the world till now.
Henceforth thou hast a helper, me, that know
The woman's cause is man's...."
In the more realistic Victorian London described by Michel Faber, however, William never achieves this understanding; he capitulates fully to "the rough ways of the world" and its "barbarous laws," and rejects the college of women "governed" by Sugar. Given what's happened in the final chapters, what could be more clear than that each character is destined to go his or her own way?
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goes on my shelf of classics, December 4, 2002
By A Customer
I've read four or five books every week of my fifty years of life, but this is the first novel in many, many years that has gripped me so completely. I'll remember the first time I read it as I remember the first time I read "Gone With the Wind," "A Tale of Two Cities" or "Lord of the Rings."
Faber's brilliance, insight and compassion are rare enough. Add to this the kind of narrative talent that makes it impossible to put a book down and get on with one's life until you've read the last page -- and you have a classic.
There's no point in arguing with the naysayers (yes, the book is sexually explicit without being arousing -- if that offends or disappoints, it's not for you.) You can find slamming reviews of everyone from Dickens to Hemingway. I would put good money on the probability that our great-grandchildren will know Sugar and Agnes and William as well as they know Elizabeth Bennett and David Copperfield.
My only regret is that I will never read "The Crimson Petal and the White" again "for the first time."
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A BOOK THAT STANDS APART, September 17, 2002
I should not like this book. I hate 19th century literature and have never been interested in the life of that period. I bought it because I was intrigued with some of the reviews. I was hooked not by the first page, but by the first paragraph. Why? The language--I find myself reading sentences and paragraphs over and over (and I am a person who enjoys plot over language any day). The characters and their world--the reader is instantly transported, as if jumping into a time warp. The research--the amount of detail is so incredible that I suspect the author has a time machine. It is the most remarkable book in years.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lolita meets Merchant/Ivory - Wow, what a story!, September 11, 2002
By 
Karl Miller "kemspeaks" (Phoenixville, PA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I can't say enough positive things about the pleasure of reading "The Crimson Petal and the White". Faber has created a character that ranks with the best prostitutes in fiction, and the other characters populating his novel allow for the type of plot twists that make a novel engrossing, and in the end memorable.
The central plot of "Crimson Petal" involves the efforts of a young hooker (Sugar) to escape a horrendous teen life, and then find her way in a more successful metropolitan society. Her benefactor (or more appropiately , "Sugar" daddy) Rackham, has his own baggage (a mentally disturbed wife, an ill child and a very troubled brother), and his bringing Sugar into the mix both complicates and liberates his life. This isn't a happy ending story, however, because no character deserves (or even desires) trust. This is revealed by the various novels being written by each of the characters as the story develops - making this a series of novels, unfolding in a novel. In that sense, it reminded me of "The French Lieutenant's Woman", but "Crimson" is much more of a page turner.
After 800 pages, I wanted more. Faber's use of language, while sometimes extremely graphic, is incredibly attractive. While the people populating his story certainly aren't lovable, they are fascinating. And this is a story unlike anything you have ever read before.
There will be a lot of mentioning of Faber's name at the various book awards this year. His storytelling skills are that good.
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92 of 109 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dickens with the sex put back in, October 14, 2002
By 
This book is like a raunchy version of a Dickens novel, on many dimensions
--its 19th-century Victorian London setting
--its massive cast of characters from all walks of life (from the prostitute-of-high-character to its snobby-and-clueless upper classes)
--its episodic nature (it reads as though it were an old-fashioned serial published week-to-week)
The characters are highly developed and Faber's ability to bring nasty old London to life is powerful. The episodic nature strains credulity a bit but not to the breaking point: how is it possible that Sugar is murderous and low-class in Part I; obsessive and affectionate in Part II, and yet passing as the governess of a high-bred young lady in Part III?
Although it's something like 800 pages it's a fast read with no dull passages. I enjoyed it a great deal. But for it to merit the remarkable rave review the book got in the NYTimes, I would want more. I don't think I'll remember much about it next month. For a book to be 'great' I'd want it to have more impact than that.
P.S.: If you like your characters 'likeable,' your plot-endings tidy, and your sex tantalizing (rather than gritty and smelly), this may not be the book for you. Personally I did not mind these features but a reader of the more romantic type of historical fiction might be put off.
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50 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Crimson Petal and the White Sheets Need Washing, September 27, 2002
By 
P A Brown (New York, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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At first I was a bit torn by "The Crimson Petal and the White:" I thought is this a pot boiler of the best sort or a novel of the middling sort? Certainly there is a no want of squalid and graphic Victorian detail, especially of the bodily kind. Not a paragraph goes by without a gleeful description of sweat, blood, urine, menstrual blood, sodden gutters, hawked spit, spilled tears, pools of feces (human or animal), bad smells, nasty teeth, biliousness, queasy stomaches (sometimes the reader's) all of which makes you bless the makers of flush toilets, Ban roll-on and, Kleenex and Listerine. Smells, odors, aromas, scents, and all kinds of olfactory stimulants nice and noisome abound and rebound; the book stinks of smells. Likewise, the precise mannerings and dress of various classes of characters encountered is faithfully recounted along with the hypocracy we have come to accept as being endemic to the Victorians, high and low. Sugar, "The Crimson Petal's" heroine, is that stock creature, the Whore with a Heart of Gold, a neo-feminist, who puts the devil (lascious man) behind her (along with a cruel mother) and saves herself, a misunderstood wife and an unloved child in the process. A lot of bodily fluids get spilled in the process, and a lot of sheets get dirtied. It is a fascinating story, however, and it does pull you in for all of its 800 or so pages, no mean feat, that. There a fair amount of sex, much of explicit, none of it erotic. Mr. Faber has written a big book and filled with lots of interesting odds and ends and tosses in characters who do not seem particularly real nor do they act in particularly realistic way. They lack depth and their actions only make sense in context of moving along the rather turgid plot. It is as if being surrounded by so much gritty, harsh authenticity, the characters need not hew to the laws of natural behavior themselves. I ambilvalent about this book, but I am not fooled by it and its fancy shop windows: it very good work of fiction, but by no means is it a great piece of literature. If you want a Victorian novel written to perfection by a modern author, read Charles Palliser's "The Quincunx."
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The type of person who will love this book, December 17, 2003
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This review is from: The Crimson Petal and the White (Paperback)
************
I wanted to write a different sort of review for this book. There are, as of this writing, 288 reviews written already, many which describe the content of the book beautifully. I wanted to add here some information about who might want to order it.
If you are a person that loves to be kept up late at night by a novel you just can't put down, you will enjoy this book. It is long, as others have said, but it never is slow; in fact, I would love to read a sequel.
I devoured this book and could not wait to find out what happened next. I was a little afraid that I would be offended by the explicit sexuality described by others, but I was not, as it was not gratuitous. Sexuality was simply a part of life for the characters in the book, as it is for us today. The sexual themes were different, as the main character is a prostitute, but there is a great deal of her life that any woman could identify with, maybe even---that most women today could identify with. I know I did.
I was not particularly interested in this time period historically, nor am I a fan of Dickens---you can still enjoy the book having these characteristics. The time period, for me, was incidental, and reading about class and gender differences at that time in history caused me to think about class and gender differences in my own time and relationships between men and women now.
This is simply a great, beautifully written story. It is entertaining, but not light in the sense that there are many layers of messages and meaning that are not superficial that one can think about as one reads. For me it was a deep book. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, and I am still thinking about it.
I would encourage you to read it if you want to get lost in a lovely story and think about your life and how you relate to the opposite sex. About what immorality and morality truly is, even if you already think you know. I hate romances, and it is definitely NOT a romance...it is more for someone who wonders about romance..and love...and marriage...and men and women...for someone who thinks different unspoken things and wonders if anyone else thinks the same way. I know this sounds sort of mysterious, but that's how the book is too, and if it intrigues you, don't hesitate---get it and then enjoy!
******
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The Crimson Petal and the White
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Paperback - September 1, 2003)
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