Monday, February 24, 2014

The Crimson Petal and the White

The Crimson Petal
and the White

Michel Faber
4 / 5

Published 2002

First Sentences
"Watch your step.  Keep your wits about you; you will need them."

Publisher's Description:
Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds. 2013 TV mini-series.
Dear Reader,

My father passed this book on to me years ago (I think it was at least two apartments ago, maybe more) and I have been meaning to read it, but because of its sheer size I kept putting it aside in lieu of other things.  I finally decided it was a good time to tackle a longer book, and I was eager to read this one (besides that I'd been staring at it on my shelves for so long and was intrigued!) because I try to stagger my reading so that I am engaging with books from different time periods and different styles.  Mostly this is so that I can keep the various storylines separate (I have been known to confuse something I heard in an audiobook for a part in the book I am reading), but partly it's because I like the variety.  It's hard not to be in the mood for at least ONE of the several books that I am reading at any given time.

As for this book?  It was really good.  I loved the way Faber swept you in immediately by speaking to you as if you were a visitor to this Victorian-era London, introducing you to the lowest in society in order that you (the reader, but also the observer, the fly on the wall) could quickly move through the social ranks and meet the people you needed to meet for the story, the important ones.  The only thing that bothered me about this device was that you only ended up moving through the social ranks a little bit, from dirt-poor to middle-class, I suppose - only really making three jumps in the entire novel.  Still, I thought it was a great way to introduce things and to move the story along.  Plus, it was wonderful to get the feeling that you were truly walking the streets of London, experiencing it as one would have in 1874.

The book itself was maybe slightly too long for the story it told, but overall it was definitely chock full and needed 99% of its content to really fulfill its mission.  The characters that you get to know as you continue through the story - Sugar, William, Agnes, Henry, Emmeline, and Sophie are your most important acquaintances - really jump right off the page.  While sometimes they infuriated me, and while sometimes I didn't buy the later changes that came over William in the second half of the book, most of it felt very real.  And the ending of the book, while at first frustrating me, ultimately made me quite content once I'd given it a bit of space.

I have to put a plug in here for the BBC miniseries that came out a few years ago, as well - I watched it once I had finished the book, and it was a great & very true-to-the-source interpretation.  Sometimes things I wanted to be changed from the novel were not!  But it's very faithful, and it should be.  I may have particularly loved it because I adore Chris O'Dowd (who played the main Rackham brother), but my favorite performance from that piece was Amanda Hale's portrayal of his wife Agnes - properly insane and believable at once.

The eponymous "petals" referred to are Sugar - a low-born prostitute - and Agnes, an ailing and delicate upper-classer, whose mother married into the gentry via a Lord Unwin.  Sugar's fiery red hair and strongly independent (and ambitious) nature make her the "crimson" one - she is the one Rackham goes to for advice as well as physical intimacy.  Agnes is frail, fragile, pale and blonde, making her the complimentary "white."  Both women undergo quite a bit throughout the book, and the irony is that Agnes is often the one coughing up red blood and acting angry and crazy, while she considers Sugar to be her guardian angel - which I imagine as something white, and pure.  Sugar also maintains a very calm and rational demeanor.  It's a very interesting twist on one's immediate conclusion of who is who when it comes to the title's petals.

Also interesting is the choice of the word "petals", which does not come up at all in the book.  Is it a reference to William Rackham's inherited perfume dynasty?  Petals of flowers can be crushed to create perfume.  Were the women in the book crushed?  It seems to me they turned out to be rather uncrushable, in the long run.  It might not seem readily apparent, but having given the book time to sink in, I think the females of this book are really the strong and important characters.  They shape their own lives.

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