Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Crimson Petal and the White

Currently Reading: "The Odyssey" by Homer
Next Up: "Ulysses" by James Joyce (if A. catches up...otherwise something lighter yet to be determined)

**NOTE: I finished this book on Feb. 6th...but I'm only getting around to the review now. Sorry!**

I've been of the mind recently that there is something slightly worse than bad. And that is: almost. Bad, one can deal with. It's easily classifiable, and can be (to paraphrase Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief) "whittled down to a more manageable size." Almost is harder. Almost teases you with what could have been, only to disappoint you with what is. Almost is wasted potential. Almost lingers inside you like a dust bunny under a bed in a clean room. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber almost lives up to its promise.

I was drawn into the novel by seductive narrative voice leading me down the streets of Victorian London. It was a little bit cinematic and a little bit Dickensian, and I was immediately enthralled. Crimson Petal tells the story of Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute who is renowned in London for doing everything. There is no depravity too extreme, as long as she's getting paid for it. Yet, that's not what makes Sugar truly interesting. She's interesting, because while she was raised in prostitution, she's literate and reads voraciously. She's also an aspiring novelist, hoping to better the plight of prostitutes by exposing their ills (and their secret vengefulness) to the world through her prose. Meanwhile, on the other side of London, there resides the Rackham family, and at its head, William Rackham, heir to a perfume company.

It's his meeting and subsequent infatuation with Sugar that's supposed to be the main story in the novel, but Faber packs the novel with intricate "secondary" characters that are much more interesting: Agnes, William's addled, very Catholic wife; Henry Rackham and Emmeline Fox, William's brother and the unorthodox humanitarian he loves; little Sophie Rackham, forced into observing her household rather than taking part in it; and Caroline, Sugar's soulful prostitute friend.

All of their stories are so captivating that it must have seemed a daunting task to do them all Faber opted not to try. Instead, the lives of the supporting characters peter out with no resolution, good or bad. Now, we all know that life is not a neatly packaged thing. Situations don't resolve themselves perfectly, and one could argue that the "point" of this book is that that's how life is. However, that "rationale" for ending things with no change or resolution has more often than not seemed like a cop-out to me. I did find the resolution for Sugar (which also involved Sophie) very interesting, but that, too, is glossed over. Sugar is more spoken about than spoken through, and I found that very unfair to her.

The Crimson Petal and the White has moments of brilliance, full characters, and an interesting narrative voice. It's just a shame that all of these wonderful parts don't add up to a more successful whole. I wouldn't tell you not to read the same time, I will say that you shouldn't expect to be completely satisfied when you've finished. I wasn't.

I give this book an Eh.


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