Review: The Crimson Petal and the White

From October, 2002

I simply couldn’t resist this NY Times bestseller after reading its stellar reviews, and especially after it was labeled “a modern-day Dickensian novel”…not that I am particularly fond of Dickens, but it seemed like an opportunity to taste the flavor of Dickens in a contemporary, more easily readable form.

At over 800 pages long, The Crimson Petal was a mammoth journey through Victorian London, complete with all the squalor, filth, grime, and unscrupulous characters one could imagine.

The narrative style was unusual and I’m still trying to decide if I liked it or not. The reader is introduced to London (a character in itself–very Dickensian indeed!) and the small cast of characters by an unnamed “guide” who continues to lead the reader through the story–sometimes silently, sometimes chiming in with commentary. I found this narrative style at times distracting, finding myself slugging through the narrator’s rambling descriptions and ruminations; however, when I turned the final page, I realized overall what an effective device this style truly was.

A set of dark, gloomy characters–unadmirable creatures with few redeeming features– led the story. The main characters include William Rackham, the unwilling heir to a perfume business; Agnes, William’s brittle, long-suffering “mad wife in the attic”; and Sugar, a decidedly unconventional and strong-willed young prostitute whose intense affair with William gives her the opportunity to climb to a higher perch in the rigidly stratified class system of the time. (description from Wikipedia). All  were gritty; overwhelming in some respects, underwhelming in others. No saints were to be found in this world, which was a relief, actually, to me, a reader (like most intelligent readers) who appreciates complexity, irony, and fallibility in her heroes and heroines. I did not “like” any of the characters–I would never have invited any of them to my home for dinner–but their complexity intrigued me. At times I could understand their actions, if not sympathize, while other times I was completely mystified by their behavior and motives. But it was distaste joined with fascination and an oddly voyeuristic urge that focused my attention throughout this massive journey until…

a startlingly abrupt conclusion.

Abruptness, in this case, not necessarily being a negative thing, as the story culminated with the same solemn air of realism that permeated the entire narrative. The plot was bursting with insinuations and left enough character clues for the reader to presume what the future would hold for these poor creatures. It definitely left food for thought–a veritable feast of it.

A writer from Powells.com referred to The Crimson Petal as “a Victorian artifact brilliantly retooled for the 21st century,” an assessment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

WARNING: This book is not for the faint of heart, offering a full platter of  vividly described bodily functions, graphic distasteful sex (but occasional moments of titillating eroticism as well), and emotional messiness.

The Crimson Petal and the White is apparently being slated for production as a four-part BBC miniseries.

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