Summary and book reviews of The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and The White

By Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and The White
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2002,
    848 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2003,
    944 pages.

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About this Book

Book Summary

At the heart of this panoramic, multidimensional narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. Michel Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape into a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters.

They begin with William Rackham, an egotistical perfume magnate whose ambition is fueled by his lust for Sugar, and whose patronage of her brings her into proximity to his extended family and milieu: his unhinged, child-like wife, Agnes; his mysteriously hidden-away daughter, Sophie; and his pious brother Henry, foiled in his devotional calling by a persistently less-than-chaste love for the Widow Fox, whose efforts on behalf of The Rescue Society lead Henry into ever-more disturbing confrontations with flesh. All this is overseen by assorted preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all stripes and persuasions.

Twenty years in its conception, research, and writing, The Crimson Petal and the White is a singular literary achievement -- a gripping, intoxicating, deeply satisfying Victorian novel written with an immediacy, compassion, and insight that give it a timeless and universal appeal.

Chapter 1

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you're actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people.

And yet you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let's not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The novel's title implies the distinction between virtue and immorality. In your opinion, who are the sinister characters in the book? Who are the heroes and heroines?

  2. What makes the late nineteenth century such an appropriate time period for this narrative? How might the storyline have played out in the twenty-first century?

  3. Temptation and cravings fuel much of the novel's plot. By your own standards, are the characters shockingly lacking in self-control? Or do you feel they cope well in the circumstances?

  4. Do you detect any common denominator among the novel's female characters (especially Sugar, Agnes, Mrs. Fox, and Mrs. Castaway) in spite of their seemingly disparate motivations?

  5. William receives nearly ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Don’t read this huge and weighty novel expecting neat conclusions and happy endings – you won’t find either. Do read it if you love historical fiction and finely nuanced characters. Short of finding a time machine to take you there in person, this is about as close as a modern reader is going to get to the experience of what it must have been like to live in Victorian London – and unlike most Victorians who were able to experience only their own tier of society, the reader is able to explore multiple levels, from the depths of poverty to far up the ladder of society.  

Media Reviews
Time Magazine

...don't wait for the movie. Read The Crimson Petal and the White now, while it's still a living, laughing, sweating, coruscating mass of gorgeous words.... Ever since last fall readers have been watching for another knockdown, breakout book on the order of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. It's here.... The result is so fresh it makes contemporary novels, however packed with up-to-the-minute pop-culture references, feel dated. And although it's almost 300 pages longer than The Corrections, miraculously it feels shorter.

Entertainment Weekly

Here's a tale of a true city. London, 1874. Whores, high society, smut-soaked streets, the polished ceilings of Royal Albert Hall. The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber's bulging, bawdy Victorian epic, is a gloves-off kind of novel, one not to be passed along lightly to your grandmother. Cocky and brilliant, amused and angry, the author is rightfully earning comparisons to observer extraordinaire Charles Dickens.

New York Times - Janet Maslin

The late-19th-century London setting and mores of the book suggest Victoriana ... the author has revived the spirit of the era's broad, socially conscious narrative tableaus. But this is also a story told in the present tense, alert and teasingly satirical about its characters even as it evokes real compassion for their peculiarly Victorian plights. There is as much Bonfire of the Vanities as Dickens here, not to mention a graphic sexual realism that is Mr. Faber's own.

New York Times Book Review

Michel Faber's previous work ... was certainly ambitious and accomplished, but nothing could have prepared his readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White.... Slowly we find ourselves inside the heroine's head, led there by a rhetoric so skilled and daring, that we hardly know it is operating.

New York Newsday

If you start reading this suspenseful, beautifully written novel, with its compelling characters, subtle psychology, wit and heart, you won't be able to stop.

Kirkus Reviews

... a brilliantly plotted chronicle of the collision between high and low..... It's hard to imagine that any contemporary novelist could have appropriated with such skill and force the irresistible narrative drive of the Victorian three-decker, or that readers who hunger for story won't devour this like grateful wolves. Riveting, and absolutely unforgettable.

Library Journal - Joseph M. Eagan

Faber's mastery of character, evocative descriptions of Victorian England, and rich dialog, together with his weaving of enduring themes throughout a complex plot, creates a remarkable novel.

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....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.

Booklist - Ilene Cooper

Starred Review..... Faber's breathtaking novel is more intimate with its characters and less hopeful in its resolutions. This is part saga, part morality play, and utterly engrossing..... This massive work is startling and absorbing. Readers will not soon forget the richly drawn world into which they have been enticed.

Washington Post Book World

It's Fowlesian nouveau-roman trickery, pasted onto 19th-century melodrama. The combination works surprisingly well. When he's not rubbing the reader's nose in Victorian sewage and soiled underwear, Faber has the Victorian virtue of telling a good story grippingly and colorfully. The Crimson Petal and the White is an old-fashioned page-turner with pleasingly newfangled twists.

Reader Reviews
JGB

Cold turkey ending
This book is fascinating at the beginning, even with all its debauchery it hooks you into a real slice of Victorian life more realistically than some may desire. Sugar's character requires suspension of belief in how she acquires such wisdom and ...   Read More

maggie

a matter of deduction
I enjoyed every word of the book but I too was taken aback at the abrupt ending. But now I think that if the author is as good as he seems to be, then the ending was foreshadowed throughout the book and we should have enough clues to figure out what ...   Read More

chris lyle

the crmson petal the white
Excellent, compelling, loved the historical aspect and the characters. The ending was frustrating - I wanted to find out more, but it was the right ending for the book

MONI80

DEDICATED READERS ONLY!
I recently finished this book and must say I really enjoyed it form the descriptive and vulgar portrayal of victorian London streets and smells to the vivid and crude glimpse of seventeenth century 'fallen women' (my favorite character was Caroline) ...   Read More

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