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The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: What a monumental waste of time. I probably shouldn’t begin my review that way, but that was my first thought upon reading the last page just now. This is the story of a lout named William Rackham, his mad wife Agnes, and his troubled mistress Sugar. I especially enjoyed Agnes as the pitiably ignorant and tormented product of her high-society upbringing. I admit my disappointment with this book started when I realized it was about a man who falls in love with a prostitute, but I tried to ignore the cliched premise and get into the story. There was no problem there – the characters are solid, believable, and (mostly) sympathetic. The description of 19th century England is so detailed you can see it in your mind. I did notice that all the major female characters in this story suffered from some physical ailment; I wonder if that was meant to be symbolic. The author wades tentatively into controversial waters – poverty, prostitution, religion – but never shares any sort of opinions either way, appearing to suggest that misery is something that is unavoidable and charity is nothing more than a drop in the ocean, unnoticed and not even worth the effort.

The book, at 833 pages (and it’s the larger size paperback; this thing is massive!), is in severe need of editing. Entirely too much space is given to the frustratingly angstful relationship between the doctor’s daughter Emmeline and William’s brother Henry. It did nothing to further the plot whatsoever, just an aside that never wove itself into the fabric of the main story. They should have had their own book and stayed out of this one. There were other characters who likewise did nothing for the story (such as the prostitute Caroline), but they were minor enough that I can ignore them. The beginning should have been edited as well, as it starts out with a clever method of introducing characters and setting up scenes – the reader is being guided personally through the events by a sort of invisible spirit, invited to follow people around – but this is lost about a third of the way through the book in favor of more traditional narration. It should have been kept throughout or dropped entirely. Finally, I found the obsession with bowel movements annoying. I understand the author’s desire to show that real people lived in these conditions, but I don’t really need to read about it every time Sugar pees. The use of such a term doesn’t help either. Perhaps such words were in the vernacular at the time, but after such flowery 19th century language it is very jarring to run across such modern-sounding slang as “balls” and “cunt” and “fart” in the (third person omniscient) narration.

Even so, I could have overlooked these problems in the interest of the story of the Rackham family, which is honestly engaging and appears to be building to a climax, the anticipation of which makes the book difficult to put down for the last couple hundred pages. However, this lengthy tome still manages to end in the middle of the action. Several of the main characters are left unaccounted for, their fates unknown to the reader. 833 pages and the story just stops, leaving the reader with the sinking feeling that they just wasted all those hours spent getting to know these characters. The story isn’t even tragic enough to feel a satisfying sense of pity – you turn the last page and sit there, dumbstruck, wondering where the next chapter disappeared to and why the hell you bothered reading to that point in the first place.

On the bright side, I did learn quite a bit about the time period and do hope to pick up more historical fiction in the future. Just not by Michel Faber.

Originally posted on BookCrossing

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