I wish I could live inside this book. Like literally open the spine and dip down in between like I’m tucking myself into bed and watch the entire book play in front of my eyes like a really lifelike movie set where everything is real and no one sees you. Wait—like Harry in Chamber of Secrets, yeah just like that. My Favorite Books: The Crimson Petal and the White.
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. (3)
The best books I’ve ever read are the ones that don’t come from recommendation or from hype or heavy advertising. No, the best books I’ve ever read are the ones that come to me inexplicably. They’re the ones I stumble upon when I’m looking for another book. They’re the ones I buy because I like the front cover, or the way the pages feel, or because it reminds me of something else.
I picked up The Crimson Petal and the White because it was mentioned by Emily Gilmore in Gilmore Girls, no joke. She reads it and recommends it (drunkenly) to Lorelai, and so when I found it in Barnes & Noble, I had to have it. Little did I know it would easily become one of my top ten favorite books of all time. Faber draws the reader in from the first page by introducing himself as your guide to late-Victorian London. He addresses the reader directly, as in the quote above, using second person, which he uses sporadically throughout the novel. The direct address adds a new level of reality to a world you think you know. To quote The Real World, you have no idea.
Faber’s Victorian London is part Dickens and part a parody of Dickens, and a parody of what most people are used to reading about the Victorian era. Yet, his work is astoundingly well researched and it throbs with life. Nothing looks or feels like Faber’s Victorian London. Each “level” of society is described in such minute detail, exhaustive but addictive, that never dips into encyclopedic and easily transcends the divide of the last hundred-odd years. And I have never read a character I’ve liked better than (though perhaps I’ve liked some just as much as) Sugar, the prostitute and protagonist.
Sugar is the most talented prostitute in London by virtue of reputation–she’ll do anything, and everything the other girls won’t, and she’ll do it with a smile. Working in a “house of ill repute,” Sugar has racked up an impressive list of clients and boasts a varied repertoire of sexual favors.
What I love most about Sugar are her fierce independence, her intellect, her cleverness, and her sense of self-preservation. She’s also not conventionally beautiful: skinny, flat-chested, freckled, and afflicted with a form of psoriasis called ichthyosis, she’s nevertheless charismatic and irresistible. Sugar is aware of her power over weak men. She’s smarter than they are and confident in her abilities. She’s also insecure and emotional, maternal and protective. Sugar begins the novel convinced that she knows the world and that she hates everyone in it. She’s a hard cynic in the beginning but by the end, she is forced to question her worldview and her blind hatred for others and finds a way to steal happiness.
Then we have William Rackham, the sniveling, cowardly, attentive, proud little man who contracts Sugar as his personal mistress. A perfume magnate and an objectively powerful man, Rackham feels inferior to Sugar and grows obsessed with her. Curiously, Rackham likes her not only for her perceived sexual appetite or for her body, but also for her ready mind and quick wit. Rackham treats her almost like an equal, like a modern-day wife, seeking her advice about difficult business dilemmas and reveling in her intellect. Despite his pride and arrogance, he likes having a verbal sparring partner as a bedmate, and fancies himself in love with her. Through her relationship with Rackham, Sugar moves up in society and finds within herself a capacity for kindness, maternal love, and selfless courage.
Rackham is enough of a complicated character but joining this stellar ensemble cast are his brother, the virginal, self-flagellating, intellectual Henry Rackham; William Rackham’s wife, the mentally ill and cripplingly sheltered Agnes Rackham; the progressive, masculine, and religious Emmeline Fox; the naive and bed-wetting little Sophie Rackham; and a smattering of vivid others that flesh out the narrative with questions about spirituality, religion, feminism, sin, pseudo-science, social structures, and so, so much more. This thing is a masterpiece, I tell you.
It’s a hefty one, about 900 pages, but it feels like a 200-page beach read. It’s that addictive. Read it, read it, read it. 🙂
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 your first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast. Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now. (3)
There, now: aren’t you hooked?
Recently, a BBC mini-series was released and when I saw the commercials on television featuring my favorite actress, Romola Garai, as Sugar, I yelled in excitement. The adaptation isn’t perfect but it’s nice: I think Rackham and Sugar are cast perfectly but the others are a miss, and the movie fails to capture most of the nuances that make this book so unique. Still, it was worth watching just to see Garai as Sugar. I read that she fought for the role, which makes me admire her even more.
Here are a couple stills from the movie:
and a promo of Romola Garai as Sugar:
Stay tuned for more of Michel Faber’s books that I thrifted a while back…I’m reading my way through his oeuvre and I’m surprised by what I’m finding!
Faber, M. (2002) The Crimson Petal and the White. Edinburgh, UK: Canongate Books.