Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber

This came highly recommended by a friend, and I was a little shocked when it arrived at the library by exactly how big it was. 800 pages! But it is a fairly large print, and not particularly dense prose, so I finished it faster than I was expecting.

This is mainly the story of an extraordinarily intellectually intelligent prostitute named Sugar. She is beautiful, very unique looking, and very good at figuring out what people want. She is a great character. You can't help but want her to succeed, even when you see her working so very hard at something that you are sure isn't going to make her happy.

The narrative starts very oddly, with the narrator talking to you as if you are actually physically present in 1870s London, following people around, hoping to make connections that will eventually lead you to the upper crust of London society. I really enjoyed this, and it was very similar to what everyone in that society is trying to do - work their way as far up the social ladder as they possibly could. I also especially loved Caroline, the first prostitute you meet in the story. Her life is fairly horrible, she has lost everything that you would figure makes life worth living, and yet she is a fundamentally happy person, able to enjoy the little things that are left to her, and caring deeply about the people in her life.

Sugar is a more complicated character. She is not at all happy with her lot in life, and grasps at the opportunity to change things when William Rackham comes along. He is initially infatuated with Sugar, and she works very hard to make herself utterly indispensable to him so that he will not lose interest. It is fascinating that although Sugar doesn't love William, in fact she doesn't like him in the slightest, she is so invested in making him love her that she winds up acting and feeling very much like someone desperately in love.

William's wife Agnes is another fascinating character. Initially she seems utterly crazy and it would be very easy to write her in such a way that the reader would simply despise her, and yet you wind up really caring about her and wanting things to work out somehow so that she will be alright. The situation with her daughter Sophie just left me shaking my head in disbelief at the entire 19th century and their attitude towards women.

Overall I think I really enjoyed this book, but it has some really horrible moments that left me feeling pretty depressed. On the other hand, if you want a very graphic example about how much the situation of women has improved over the past 200 years, this is a very good book to read.

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