Every now and then, a great novel manifesto comes along that gets people talking and curiosities flowing. The curious among us hope to be inspired, awed and enlightened by its wisdom, and should the experience fall short of expectation, we’re left wondering the reason for all the fuss.
However, I believe the enlightened readers among the said curious are still capable of finding something, something, that speaks to the praises of such novels that, while not on our list of favorites, are remarkable in their own right—that, which is the right of every novelist who seeks to inspire his or her audience with a vision.
The following critique happens to be my own experience with one such novel, and if my misgivings about it ruffle the feathers of its loyal following, understand, please, it’s nothing personal—just my usual two cents.
Plowing through the 800-plus pages of Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber’s 2002 best-selling farce of Victorian-era debauchery, I never got around to understanding the meaning of the title, or the exact motives of the story’s protagonist, a prostitute-turned governess, Sugar.
I imagine answers to these questions, plus a number of other plot holes, were lost in the avalanche of distractingly elegant prose amidst a layering of plots, subplots, and sub-subplots that (my opinion says) drug Faber’s story out just a few hundred pages too long.
These excesses of detail often had me double backing for hidden clues in previous chapters, to better comprehend new back stories and characters that kept popping and moving the story in alternate directions.
It would have worked—had all these story interjections led to something in the end, which I didn’t get.
So much excess seemed unnecessary, and an ending rather abrupt left a lot of questions unanswered to what would have been an exceptionally ravishing tale that Faber wrote so well.
The characters, places, and heartbeat of old high society are masterfully captured in the true vein that is Victorian decadence and charm.
Strong is Faber’s candid portrayal of 19th century prostitutes and the “fallen” women who maintain the life. Some out of desperation, and others by choice, like Sugar, who indicate they use it to their advantage. Perhaps a quest for independence? Atonement, or fame, or revenge?
For Ms. Sugar, any or all of these motives seem to work, depending on the circumstances she finds herself in with the object of her affection, William Rackham, a perfume industry heir whose dying marriage to a mentally ill wife and growing business fortunes leave him hungering and feeling entitled to indulge in an illicit affair with Sugar under the noses of his upper class cohorts.
And what an affair they have—until the hunger grows uncontrollable and complications rise as a result, with promises going unfulfilled and emotions raging. It all makes for a sensuous cat-and-mouse battle of the sexes, although the novel’s excessive lengths tosses in a bit too much to plug the action along at a pace it would have been better suited.
Well-told is Faber’s own personal critique of an aging society where strict morals are revered and enforced, though rules of conduct are loosely followed by those at the top.
The women of Sugar’s world are true survivors, numb to the dangers of society’s prejudices of their plight, regardless of circumstance.
And the character of William experiences a slow transformation from aimless heir to adulterous industry slave that is harrowing as it unfolds. His biggest flaw (and undoing) is underestimating his little Sugar, whose hard-boiled toughness and smarts ultimately prove the foolishness of his scheme to have his cake and eat it too.
NOIR'S TWO CENTS:
Faber is a true poet of crafting plots of unbridled lust and temptation, and the results are truly exceptional, albeit excessive in pomp and length at times. Though the author may have left a few holes in his ending that would have made the novel a more satisfying read, I’ll leave it up to any who have the time and patience to decide if Crimson Petal and The White succeeds or fails in delivering satisfaction.