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Book Review: The Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber

A novel set in Victorian London: the social ascension of a young, talented prostitute who is determined to leave her profession.

By Laurence Grenier

NEW YORK, 13 January 2003

Subject: a curious idea for a contemporary novel.
Length: more than 800 pages (large print), never boring, so that one is not even tempted to skip passages.
Style: modern, light and sophisticated, very original
Success: great in America, among both critics and readers
What do we retain? No revelations or truths accessible only through literature, but distraction, discovery of an earlier world; sympathy for various characters, good erotic scenes, understanding of the period, feeling that one has lived at that time
Recommendation: multi-star

When I asked my ten-year-old son to explain to me, if possible, why he loved Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he answered, after some reflection, "it's like a film" (not a scenario; the film of the novel, a few years later, was very disappointing!).

Well, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is much the same: better than a good film!

From the start, the author uses a particular stylistic effect, addressing the reader, making him a direct witness of what is going to happen: far from irritating us, this artifice gives one the impression of holding a camera, a little like cinéma-vérité. It also gives us the feeling, early on in the plot, of making the reader a voyeur who will never be disappointed in the entertainment!

The story: William Rackham is the heir to a big cosmetic firm in which he is not interested, thereby disappointing his father who cuts back on his allowance in the hopes that he will become more amenable to taking over the family business. He falls sway to the charms of a 19-year-old prostitute named Sugar, an expert in love (she never says "no"), who is the secret author of a book containing all her fantasies of revenge against the male sex. Despite her professional qualities, Sugar, who was forced into prostitution by her mother from the time she was 13, dreams of getting out and becoming a respectable woman. William is married to Agnes, a frail aristocrat who is almost mad and for whom he nonetheless has some feelings of tenderness; William nonetheless installs Sugar in the household and makes her his business advisor as well as governess to his daughter Sophie who has been hitherto neglected. Related in such bald terms, you will undoubtedly think of Jane Eyre: forget about all that, because that's where all resemblance ends! Michel Faber is decidedly of the 21st century, and his way of regarding the past is entirely modern, without being anachronistic: a veritable exploit. The novel, told in an unrelenting rhythm, takes us from the lowest depths of London to the elegant residences of Notting Hill, with a detour through the world of the perfume industry. You think of Zola's Nana as you feel the buzzing of the metropolis at its industrial and industrious height.

Secondary characters are described with great truth: William's brother Henry, a man of the cloth who is sexually repressed, secretly loved by Mrs. Fox, a woman devoted to the cause of the prostitutes who crowd London's sidewalks; servants who serve and make use of their masters; unworthy mothers; battered children, women exploited by men who are themselves victims of a twisted society. In a word, everything one more or less knows about a world that has disappeared, but still close enough so that we can easily picture it.

An intelligent ending, plausible and nonethess surprising: everything is there so that Michel Faber's novel will lead you into the whirlwind his heroine traverses with great humanity. And you will be sorry to have left after a long journey that has seemed too short.

Michel Faber: The Crimson Petal and the White

The Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber

Hardcover: 848 pages
Harcourt, New York (16 September 2002)
ISBN: 015100692X

Laurence Grenier is a French writer who lives in the United States. She is the author of Histoires de ma Mère (Éditions Bien-dire).


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