The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber tells the story of Sugar, a nineteen year old prostitute living in London in the 1870s in a brothel run by her mother.  She is ‘bought’ by William Rackham, a perfumer, to be his exclusive mistress – a situation which takes her life in unexpected directions.  The stories of William’s disturbed wife, Agnes, and his pious brother, Henry, are also woven in to this rich tapestry of a story teeming with detail on all aspects of Victorian life.

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is probably the longest book I will read this year weighing in at a hefty 835 pages.  However, I wouldn’t say that the book is too long in the sense that I didn’t think there were many parts that were rambling and could have been scrapped altogether. I was impressed by how well-paced the story was as I think this is quite rare in such a huge book.  Unsurprisingly, the story is heavily descriptive particularly in character detail and social history but despite a number of sub-plots, the actual story is not as complicated as I thought it would be and it doesn’t meander off course too much.  The characters are very well drawn and developed.  Sugar, in particular, is a highly ambiguous and complex character and is refreshingly different from the usual portrayal of a Victorian-era prostitute. 

If you like Sarah Waters’s Victorian novels, particularly ‘Tipping the Velvet‘, then you will probably enjoy ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ which deals with a similarly murky side of Victorian London (in pretty explicit detail it must be said).  It is very atmospheric with intriguing characters and in terms of plot, it is definitely a slow-burner.  However, I was surprised that the story did not build up to a big climax as I expected and instead, the conclusion felt rather abrupt after such a long journey.  I did enjoy the story but after having invested so much time in the bookI did feel a little bit unsatisfied by the ending which didn’t really tie up any loose ends at all.  But on the other hand, I suppose the ambiguous ending is a nice reflection of Sugar’s character as well as real life in general, so perhaps it was appropriate after all.


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16 responses to “The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

  1. This is so weird. Someone was talking to me about this book just yesterday. When I read the description on Goodreads I immediately popped it on my never-ending TBR list. Your post has intrigued me even more.


  2. This is the sort of book that I’s never normally read – but I’m a big fan of Michael Faber so I picked it up. And so glad I did – it’s a fantastic novel and genuinely doesn’t feel anything like it’s 800-odd pages. Nice write-up.


  3. Thanks for a nice review. Your write-up has made me want to read this book.


  4. Perhaps the ending leaves us open for a sequel? Although there is something to be said for not knowing what happened next. I adored this book and thought that, like you say, for such a doorstop of a novel there really are no dull sections at all. The beauty of it is that, writing now, Faber can write convincing Victorian London with all the dirty bits Dickens would never have dreamt of portraying.


  5. I loved this novel when I read it several years ago, I also loved the TV adaptation. I thought it was a rolicking good read for such a chunky book and strangely quite liked the unresolved nature of the ending.


  6. I am impressed with Sarah Water’s work, so making that link between the two writers interests me…I have heard good things about this book, but the length has kept it on the TBR list a long time.


  7. This is one of my all time favourite books! If the ending was too unresolved for you I would recommend reading Faber’s “The Apple” which is a collection of short stories in the same setting as “Crimson Petal…” some of the stories precede or fit around events in the novel but at least is one set afterwards and does give an interesting peek into what happens to some of the main characters in the future.


  8. naomifrisby

    I read this a few years ago – couldn’t put it down. Like you said, it doesn’t feel too long despite the page count.


  9. I love books that are really descriptive! It’s too bad that the end was a let down though, especially given how long the book was.


  10. A cracking read – complex, well structured and entirely credible. You get -not just character- but an explanation of the Victorian way of thinking, which is very different from ours. I tried ” The Apple” and din’t get on with it at all.


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