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The Crimson Petal And The White (2003)

The Crimson Petal and the White (2003)

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3.84 of 5 Votes: 3
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1841954314 (ISBN13: 9781841954318)
canongate books ltd

About book The Crimson Petal And The White (2003)

A word of warning, my friends: I’ll be giving this the hard sell. To begin, please create in your mind’s eye (and ear) the most interesting tour guide imaginable. He knows all about Victorian England – its people, its paradoxes – and what’s more, he knows what you don’t know but would find fascinating. Transitions back and forth between our modern perspectives and their older, more circumscribed ones are virtually seamless. He’s wise about people, too, their quirks and motivations, independent of setting. Oh, and the language. . . every word is perfect. You’ll hardly notice the passing hours. Right from the very beginning this omniscient fellow speaks directly to you, promises you intimate details (some of which are dark and surprising, even a bit graphic), and lures you straight into 1875. You’re in very deep soon enough, utterly beguiled. Character-driven, with the plot riding shotgunI think it’s a disservice to reveal much of the plot. The narrator/tour guide will get to what’s relevant when the time is right. I will summarize the inside flap, though, which I figure is fair game. William Rackham, the purposeless heir to a perfume manufacturer, meets Sugar, the clever and willing young prostitute who suddenly fills him with ambition. He takes over his father’s business, enjoys a quick reversal of fortune, and sees to Sugar’s ascent from the squalor so that he can have her all to himself. What follows is a whole lot of interplay between these characters and a well-drawn host of others. The primary ones are:The aforementioned William – self-centered but not entirely vile; a would-be essayist and wag; a man defined and even a bit constrained by his social standing and the times.The aforementioned Sugar – enterprising and smart; a devotee of [pun alert] Dale Carnalgie’s How to Win Johns and Manipulate People; riveting to see how her people smarts and hooker’s talent for prevarication play out in chess matches of actions and reactions.Agnes – William’s wife who is actually somewhat deranged (we as readers are clued in to the cause even though the characters are not); beautiful yet naïve; almost laughably shallow by modern standards as the product of a finishing school.Henry – William’s older brother who is in certain ways the better chap; would rather have been a man of the cloth than a man of commerce (as their father had originally hoped); earnest as the day is long but unable to suppress those pesky animal urges.Emmeline Fox – a somewhat iconoclastic widow who does social work to help prostitutes in need; the object of Henry’s affections; one with a better applied sense of religion; ill but unyielding.Sophie – William’s six-year-old daughter who begins as a near non-entity but turns into a character with surprising depth; much of her blossoming is due to a source I shan’t divulge. Interesting others, among them prostitutes whose hearts range from gold to substances not nearly so glittery, a leech-toting doctor who sees to poor Agnes, and a couple of William’s friends from school – abominable but pretty damned funny.Victorian London, seeds and allIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sorry. . . that’s unoriginal. But Dickens comes to mind for a reason. There were still many hardships for the poor, class distinctions were endemic, and byzantine morals lay beneath thin but glossy surfaces. The narrator states, “no righteous man must dare to think of the flesh, and no righteous woman must be aware of having it. If an exuberant barbarian from a savage fringe of the Empire were to stray into St. James's Park and compliment one of these ladies on the delicious-looking contours of her flesh, her response would most likely be neither delight nor disdain, but instant loss of consciousness.” Yet prostitution and pornography were booming. Conflict is easy to come by in a setting like this. It need not be manufactured or contrived. Faber said, plausibly enough, that he did a huge amount of research into the times, but didn’t actually use much of it. He said he hates when authors try so desperately to show off their knowledge to justify their efforts in obtaining it. Faber’s goal instead was to paint a vivid picture without ever allowing the pace to bog down. He hoped there was none of that “Let’s pause here for some historical stuff.” And there wasn’t.Purple prose? Pshaw! While the Victorian setting makes a certain richness of prose seem natural, there was a conscious effort to mix in faster paced elements, too. This was done so well that the writing, while lush, never felt overly verbose or ponderous; this despite longer sentences and even occasional adverbs. (In an interview, Faber made fun of Stephen King’s book on writing that basically said a pox upon modifiers. My feeling is that King may be right for most writers, but exceptions must be made for those like Faber who are so good at choosing them; you know, advisedly, unerringly.) Analysis (sans spoilers) I mentioned already that the writing is both sumptuous and fast-paced, a mix of old and new. It seems the same can be said for its literary classification. Pomo, you might ask? Well, yes and no. The narrator at the very beginning makes no bones about the fact that you’re reading a novel. And he switches between multiple POV characters, occasionally speaking directly to us as modern-day readers. Some have even called this “tricksy”, though those same people also admit that in Faber’s capable hands, it works. For the most part, though, the book features older style narration. Faber’s answer to an interview question speaks clearly to the way he wants this to be perceived. “I'm not impressed when authors rub their readers' faces in the fact that a book is only an artificial construct, that characters are not real, that it's all an exercise in deception and intellectual conceit. There's nothing new or clever about this. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy did it to perfection two hundred and fifty years ago.”For me the most interesting question is how a book so long never once bored me. It wasn’t just the setting or the writing, though both were appealing. I suspect it had more to do with how real the characters seemed. Faber said that in an earlier draft William was more villainous, but was rewritten to become more likeable and complex. This made his bad behavior all the more poignant since it came from someone I cared to learn about. Sugar was revealed in even greater detail as she vied for influence and a better life. We’re granted valuable access to her hopes, fears, sensibility, and schemes. When I sit for a tick to think about it, it’s the way the characters are revealed (through dialog, the story, the inner voices, and that amazing narrator’s talent for description) that makes this the best book I’ve read in quite a while. The sense of a non-endingThis book is not loved universally. By far the most common complaint is the lack resolution at the end. Maybe The Sopranos helped prepare me, but I kind of liked the open-endedness. Some have surmised that after 900 pages, Faber just ran out of steam. As meticulously drawn as the storyline was up to that point, though, I suspect Faber wanted us to speculate. It made the story even truer to life, where loose threads dangle all over the map. Faber evidently caved in to the pressure and later wrote a book of short stories called The Apple New Crimson Petal Stories that features the same characters. Whether it truly ties up loose ends, or is up to the standards of this one, I don’t know. But I plan to find out.Trust meRead this book! If not immediately, then soon. And if you don’t trust my judgment, check out the review by Goodreads luminary Paul Bryant. Maybe an Englishman, and one not so profligate with his stars, can convince you.

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. 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..."Thus does Faber begin his beguiling spell of a novel, the Crimson Petal and the White. He sets the bar rather arrogantly high with such an introduction, intriguing the reader, drawing us in with words that manage to be both the sharp slap of a glove across the face as well as the whispered words of a mysteriously dangerous lover whose face we can never quite see.This is the late Victorian London that Faber gives us. This London, this England, belongs to no one author's inspiration. It is the dirty, industrial exploitative mess of Sinclair's "The Jungle," it the deeply urgent, hypocritical, stridently moral mess of Thomas Hardy's desperately dark imagination, it is the woman repressed to barely breathing in the the attic of the Brontes' imagination, it is a nearly unbearably complex Dickens character that 900 pages are not sufficient to describe. Faber gives direct or indirect homage to all the teeming, screaming, whispering, and of course, most interestingly, involutarily silent voices of the era. No one could hope to capture it all, of course, but Faber does his very best. It is for this sort of novel that I wish the word "awe" could be reserved for.Faber gives us various guides on our journey, characters connected somehow in the teeming mass, tenously, momentarily, or perhaps intimately, showing the reader many different perspectives on the era, as characters have sometimes vastly different experiences based on one degree of birth, 10 shillings in their pocket, an address three streets better than someone else's, or the lack of a few pieces of vital, basic life information. He manages to give us the deeply urgent feelings of the era, on a range of topics from progress and modernization to a deeply religious perspective on romantic love to consumerism to the deep schism between sexual and "spiritual," love. Different characters' views on these subjects were everything from repulsive to ignorant to poignant to infuriating, covered in grime, tears, and rage. And yet, I found myself deeply touched by the unlikeliest of small minded, miserable characters. It was as if I saw their hands flailing in the darkness behind a door, and I kept wanting to kick that door in to take their hands and lead them out, and I couldn't do a thing about it.Faber brings out the realities of every day life that seem to never surface in novels of the era. He coats his city in filth from the very first, not scrupling to show us a child covered in piss or a whore cleaning herself after a rank smelling customer has left her. He speaks of decaying teeth in the mouths of beauties, carriage collison deaths in routine morning traffic, and the realities of burial in a city where catching disease from corpses was a very real risk in the streets. And yet, this is not a treatise on the difficulties of early modern life alone. Faber just means to point out that these things existed alongside the big ideas, dreams, and spiritual yearnings of the era. Even married ladies who had no idea what sex was or where babies came from had chamber pots that smelled and needed to be emptied in the morning. He is right to yank us from our polite disregard of such facts in the typical journey into this era, just as ladies of the time should have been yanked.He is not without poetry or a sparkling, sly humor in descriptions of this roiling mess, either. That is one of the greatly surprising aspects of the tale. Out of a dramatic vignette of hustle-bustle London life, there are observations like this: "morally, its an odd period, both for the observed and the observer: fashion has engineered the reappearance of the body, while morality still insists upon perfect ignorance of it. The bodice hugs tight to the bosom and the belly, the front of the skirt clings to the pelvis and hangs straight down, so that a slight wind is enough to reveal the presence of legs. Yet no righteous man must dare to think of the flesh and no righteous woman must be aware of having it. If an exuberant barbarian from a savage fringe of the Empire were to stray into St. James' Park now and compliment one of these ladies on the delicious looking contours of her flesh, the response would most likely be neither delight nor disdain, but an instant loss of consciousness."His characters are surprising, too. They often seem ridiculous, overly dramatic, silly enough to dismiss at first sight. The author himself seems to feel the need to beg his audience to pay attention, to follow along specimens that we can only roll our eyes at for just a little bit longer. Sugar, our main protagonist, goes through a social mobility and through many changes not at all common for a woman of the era. Her slow transition and revelation as her economic and social class change, the needs and focuses of her thoughts as she changes again and again what she wants out of life. It is amazing to watch her transformation from chapter to chapter, how her voice and thoughts change. Our main male character, William Rackham, is introduced as a silly, self-important twit with vainglorious artistic aspirations, and an aversion to any sort of responsibility. Even when he takes hold of his fate, he does not really rise in quality in the slightest. Some might say he even decreases. Yet... I came to understand him. He has all the flaws of men of the era, and some not even as badly as most. His struggles to cope with so much he doesn't understand, his delusions become pitiful, even painful by the end. His relationship with his wife ends up being particularly powerful. Poor Agnes Rackham is enough to inspire anyone, feminist or not, into a rage at what women were meant to be, and what they could not be. The struggles of Emmeline Fox and Henry Rackham brought tears of rage to my eyes... it goes on and on. Faber gets us so involved with people that perhaps we would dismiss from an author less talented. I could go on and on here about all the issues of feminism raised through the female characters, the perceptions of them through the eyes of men, the classism, relative morality, but I do believe I would run out of characters allowed in this review before I'd barely begun.As to the ending: (spoilers, perhaps? Though I don't plan to give much specific away.) I liked it. It was abrupt and shocking, rather, but after 900 pages of this epic... I somehow think it appropriate. At least from a modern novelist. I could almost believe that he stopped it there out of sheer fatigue with his narrative, but I don't think that's entirely it. His interweaving of his storylines over and over again into the complex web that they became was far too delicately done for that to be the case. We're meant to see the sort of ending that reality gives us... if indeed there ever really is an ending. Is there?"It is time to let me go," is a fittingly sensitive, yet cruel parting from a story that has embodied that contradiction.PS- (okay, now stop reading if you don't want to see a sort of spoiler)... I think they go to America, Martine. :) If the heavy handed hints at the end were to be believed.

Do You like book The Crimson Petal And The White (2003)?

Wow, that ending! After having read so many pages and gone through such an immense journey, I do feel kind of cheated by that ending :) Nevertheless, I absolutely loved this book and its characters. I loved how it portrays life in Victorian London so realistically and brutally, and I really liked how Michel Faber leaves nothing to the reader's imagination when it comes to the prostitutes and their work.Yes, this book is about prostitutes and in particular about Sugar and her rises and falls in life. It's a book where the characters change as they grow up, and not always for the better. I was especially fond of the beginning, where the narrator guides you through the story with funny remarks such as "Maybe you would rather follow Sugar now on her journey, but let's move on to another character". However, I was sorry to see that these funny remarks eventually stopped, and the reader was kind of left alone until the very last page. Almost none of the characters in this book are very likeable, but that's kind of what I liked about it. It's brutal and it's raw, and I've been told that unfortunately, this is Michel Faber's only piece of work that is historical fiction. Nonetheless, I'm definitely going to read more by Michel Faber because he is indeed a very interesting author.
—helen the bookowl

GLI UOOOOOOMINIIII NON CAAAAAMBIANOOOO![leggere con la giusta intonazione prego, non facciamo gli altoparlanti]Faber, oltre ad avere un'esilarante antipatia per il genere maschile, ha anche il sacro fuoco della narrazione che gli circola a go-go in tutto l'organismo. E infatti adotta quel mezzo quasi sleale, affabulante, che è il considerarti come effettivo lettore, non semplicemente la finestra su cui poggiare i gomiti. Assomiglia molto alla rottura della quarta parete. "Attento. Tieni la testa a posto: ti servirà. La città in cui ti conduco è vasta e intricata, e tu non ci sei mai stato prima. Puoi immaginare, da altre storie che hai letto, di conoscerla bene, ma quelle storie ti hanno illuso, accogliendoti come un amico, trattandoti come se fossi uno del posto. La verità è che tu sei un alieno, in tutto e per tutto, arrivato da un altro tempo e da un altro luogo."Questo è l'incipit, e infatti patapum sei dentro. Non c'è via di mezzo: ti prende e ti schiaffa la testa dentro. Tant'è vero che puoi sentire i tuoi passi mentre ti muovi per la Londra di fine ''800 descritta con tanta dedizione da Faber - studioso molto assennato, vent'anni passati a documentarsi e ridocumentarsi sull'epoca vittoriana -, puoi sentire il rimbalzino della gonnella di Sugar che insegui proprio dietro, ancora estasiato come si può essere estasiati dall'inizio di uno spettacolo di cabaret mirabolante, irriverente, disinvolto come è meglio che sia. E il nostro cabarettista Faber ci delizia, ci spinge ad applaudire alle sue mossette assolutamente carismatiche, sciolte, ma mai con arroganza, con consapevolezza ma non arroganza, e questo è l'importante. E l'effetto estatico da applauso forsennato ai tavolini presto si dissolve, però, lasciando che tu possa prendere parola dopo parola, capitolo dopo capitolo, sempre più confidenza con i personaggi, finché ognuno di loro insieme allo stesso romanzo rivestono quasi una seconda pelle. Ci mancherebbe solo che entrassi di botto nel libro salutando i londinesi per Notting Hill, magari infilandomi dei bei guanti di pelle e sistemandomi il bel cappello con un sorriso pavoneggiante. Sugar è semplicemente Sugar, Rackham è semplicemente un fesso patentato è semplicemente Rackham, e ancora Agnes un po' la si guarda sottecchi un po' le si vuole bene, etc etc.Ed è questa la massima dote di Faber: questa capacità di tenerti a sé stretto - quasi abbracciandoti, prendendoti la mano con premura -, prima con la sua evidente verve da cabarettista, poi con la sua capacità di farti incollare alle pagine e alla personalità del libro, facendoti sentire nient'altro che a casa. Naturalmente fare ciò significa però anche disegnarti per bene il piano architettonico dove programma di imprigionarti per circa, uhm, ma sì, quasi mille pagine (novecentoottantuno, ma arrotondare fa sempre effetto). E quindi giù con descrizioni e descrizioni, definizioni di minuzie, ma che dire: non ho sentito un particolare peso per questa cosa, anzi, è la sua peculiare caratteristica che contribuisce a distinguerlo da altre opere. Anche se in realtà ciò con cui costruisce il suo carisma, con cui può ben aggiustarsi la cravatta mentre fa finta di non avvertire il pubblico in calore, non è solo l'elemento - gli elementi - citati sopra, ma anche questa fusione tra il tipico romanzo da feuilleton alla Dumas o Dickens o Thackeray e questa componente tutta contemporanea, quasi come quel dettaglio divertente delle converse in Marie Antoinette della Coppola. Faber è consapevole di rivolgersi al lettore contemporaneo e di certo a lui parla, tant'è che ci introduce in un mondo appartenente ormai al passato, ma il registro e i modi con cui lascia che noi ci approciamo ad esso hanno quel retro che è tutto tipico della nostra concezione (e di nuovo ritornano gli aggettivi come "disinvolto", quasi confidente, ci manca solo la gomitata d'intesa).La barriera tra 1875 e 2012 non si sente nemmeno, riusciamo a mantenere la nostra identità di individuo del nuovo millennio ma allo stesso tempo sappiamo parlare la lingua dell'individuo in epoca vittoriana. Chapeau. Chapeau un po' a tutto in realtà, è un mattonazzo che a momenti fa a gara con Anna Karenina e Guerra e Pace, ma fila liscio, ha i suoi alti e bassi, in alcuni punti l'attenzione non è sempre a livelli wo, ma non mi è mai passato neanche per l'anticamera del cervello di dire "sì, ma ora mi sto rompendo le balle", Faber non lo potrebbe mai permettere, ecco il famoso fuoco della narrazione. Consentitemi di dire che Faber che si professa tuo alleato, amico per tutte le novecentoottanta pagina, a pagina novecentottantuno.........Ma ragazzi, ma questo NON è un finale! Non lo accetto, aaa, come osi spingermi a forza fuori dal libro, come se in fondo non mi fosse mai riguardato niente di niente? Ma ti pare? Ooooh, Faber, mi senti? Dammi una risposta!MICHEL FABER, TORNA SUBITO QUI!

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. 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...What a beginning! I passed my copy on after I originally read this in 2005. I gave it to my mom who gave it to her sister who gave it to her daughter. Mom and aunt loved it and the three of us still go into raptures over this book whenever we're all in a room together. My cousin wasn't a big fan; she thought the descriptions were too much, but she’s a much sweeter girl than me, my mom and my aunt. Faber's descriptions of Victorian England are both vulgar and gorgeous. He doesn't mince words. This book is definitely not for the faint at heart. The main character is a prostitute and while Faber doesn’t go into detail about the ACT of sex, there are a number of graphic descriptions about the steps women take to prevent pregnancy, terminate pregnancy, treat illness, etc. There is also so much more to this book. It also explores the struggle of women living in a man’s world and it almost becomes a psychological study. The end is rather abrupt, but Sugar does something unthinkable and morally wrong, and yet I loved the end because I realized that if you’ve been pushed past your breaking point and there is literally no other option out there, something the only thing left to do is the “wrong thing” unless you want to give up and succumb entirely to the wishes and demands of others. Given the circumstances, I suspect that if I were in the same position, I probably would have done the same thing Sugar did, as horrible as it was. Anyway, a few weeks ago I found a copy on the discount shelf at Half Price Books. $2, yes! This was a wonderful of my all-time favorites and I can't wait to read it again.
—Beth F.

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