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The Crimson Petal and the White Hardcover – September 16, 2002

3.7 out of 5 stars 793 customer reviews

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Julian Fellowes's Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
"Julian Fellowes's Belgravia" by Julian Fellowes
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Although it's billed as "the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century," The Crimson Petal and the White is anything but Victorian. The story of a well-read London prostitute named Sugar, who spends her free hours composing a violent, pornographic screed against men, Michel Faber's dazzling second novel dares to go where George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and the works of Charles Dickens could not. We learn about the positions and orifices that Sugar and her clients favor, about her lingering skin condition, and about the suspect ingredients of her prophylactic douches. Still, Sugar believes she can make a better life for herself. When she is taken up by a wealthy man, the perfumer William Rackham, her wings are clipped, and she must balance financial security against the obvious servitude of her position. The physical risks and hardships of Sugar's life (and the even harder "honest" life she would have led as a factory worker) contrast--yet not entirely--with the medical mistreatment of her benefactor's wife, Agnes, and beautifully underscore Faber's emphasis on class and sexual politics. In theme and treatment, this is a novel that Virginia Woolf might have written, had she been born 70 years later. The language, however, is Faber's own--brisk and elastic--and, after an awkward opening, the plethora of detail he offers (costume, food, manners, cheap stage performances, the London streets) slides effortlessly into his forward-moving sentences. When Agnes goes mad, for instance, "she sings on and on, while the house is discreetly dusted all around her and, in the concealed and subterranean kitchen, a naked duck, limp and faintly steaming, spreads its pimpled legs on a draining board." Despite its 800-plus pages, The Crimson Petal and the White turns out to be a quick read, since it is truly impossible to put down. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

Faber's bawdy, brilliant third novel tells an intricate tale of love and ambition and paints a new portrait of Victorian England and its citizens in prose crackling with insight and bravado. Using the wealthy Rackham clan as a focal point for his sprawling, gorgeous epic, Faber, like Dickens or Hardy, explores an era's secrets and social hypocrisy. William Rackham is a restless, rebellious spirit, mistrustful of convention and the demands of his father's perfume business. While spying on his sickly wife's maid, whom he suspects of thievery, he begins a slow slide into depravity: he meets Sugar, a whore whose penetrating mind and love of books intrigues him as much as her beauty and carnal skills do. Faber (Under the Skin) also weaves in the stories of Agnes, William's delicate, mad and manipulative wife, and Henry, his pious, morally conflicted brother, both of whom seek escape from their private prisons through fantasies and small deceptions. Sin and vice both attract and repel the brothers: William, who becomes obsessed with Sugar, rescues her from her old life, while Henry, paralyzed by his love for Emmeline Fox, a comely widow working to rescue the city's prostitutes, slowly unravels. Faber's central characters, especially the troubled William and the ambitious Sugar, shine with life, and the author is no less gifted in capturing the essence of his many minor characters-the evil madam, Mrs. Castaway, and William's pompous father-in-law, Lord Unwin. The superb plot draws on a wealth of research and briskly moves through the lives of each character-whether major or minor, upstairs or downstairs-gathering force until the fates of all are revealed. A marvelous story of erotic love, sin, familial conflicts and class prejudice, this is a deeply entertaining masterwork that will hold readers captive until the final page.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt (September 16, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 015100692X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151006922
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (793 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #526,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Meegan VINE VOICE on October 10, 2003
Format: 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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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