The Crimson Petal and the White (2002)

by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White is set in 1870s’ London and has the length of a Victorian novel and the graphic sex of a modern-day novel. It is the story of a 19-year-old prostitute named Sugar who snares a perfume magnate. William Rackham is so entranced he sets her up as his exclusive whore and later hires her as a governess for his daughter. Sugar hides her animosity to men, who have had their way with her since she was 13. She is secretly writing a book in which she’ll get revenge, but eventually she prevails in a different way, breaking apart Rackham’s family.

The critics loved The Crimson Petal and the White, comparing author Michel Faber to Dickens. Not all ordinary readers were as enamored. It is very long yet ends abruptly; the characters are inconsistent and don’t develop much. The view of the main character is a man’s view, dwelling on Sugar’s physical assets as she performs the tricks of her trade even as he asserts she’s made for better things. What feels more convincing is the novel’s evocation of Victorian-era London, from the class prejudices to the sewage-strewn streets. But do readers need a modern-day novelist to present that portrait when they already have Dickens?


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