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Faber’s racy idea of Sugar

Molly Griffin | Thursday, September 4, 2003

After a long school year consisting of what seems like endless reading, most students throw in the literary towel over the summer and try to forget that they exist (a similar policy is held with regard to du Lac). Though it is an understandable situation, students can miss out on reading books which might not appear on a school assigned reading list and whose literary merit is somewhat on the sketchy side.

Contrary to popular opinion, not every novel read during the summer or outside of the classroom has to be by Danielle Steele or John Grisham in order to be scandalously good.

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber, is well-written enough to avoid being insulting or childish and still deals with subject matter capable of making Jackie Collins blush.

The book chronicles the rise of a prostitute in Victorian London from the scum of the gutter to the fringes of respectability, but this doesn’t mean that it skimps on the good parts. With the right blend of scandal, atmosphere and character, this book will bring back your desire to read just when your textbooks had made you question the merits of being literate.

When the protagonist of a book is named Sugar, you can feel fairly certain that it won’t show up on one of your academic reading lists or in a Core discussion this semester.

Faber quickly squashes the stereotypical view of Victorian London as a realm composed entirely of eloquent gentlemen and socially graceful women in his book. Whores with few inhibitions and the lecherous men who keep them in business dominate the landscape of the novel, and this picturesque backdrop sets the scene for the story of Sugar, the quintessential “hooker with a heart of gold,” who certainly is no Julia Roberts.

Sugar is an author who has devoted her life to composing a novel about the realities of prostitution and the evils of men, in which her protagonist perpetrates acts of violence against the very men who have caused her life so much pain. Her writing allows her an outlet for her emotions without interfering with her ability to earn her livelihood, but, like most diaries or pieces of writing that cling to closely to the truth, it eventually gets her into trouble.

The grim reality of life on the street, not only for prostitutes but other destitute individuals as well, contrasts with the façade of beauty that the extreme upper echelon of wealth resides in. Sugar’s ability to survive and adapt in both the slums and the mansions makes her an extremely interesting character that would have made Darwin proud. The contrasts between grim reality and constructed fantasy, as well as between chastity and unabashed sexuality, makes the novel difficult to predict and even harder to put down.

Sugar’s rise from the oppression of living in the gutter to the different but equally repressive arena of respectability begins when she meets a sexually and economically frustrated businessman named William Rackham. The only reason William is in line to take over his family’s perfume company results from the fact that his older brother, Henry, passed on the opportunity to spend time furthering his spiritual life.

On top of his economic woes, William Rackham’s wife, Agnes, is mentally unsound and begins to lose her ability to hide it from polite society. (Agnes’ outbursts of insane impropriety are just as interesting as any of Sugar’s “business” activities.)

Sugar begins her assent above the other girls in her profession because of her uncanny knack for industrial business, as well as her proficiency in business of other kinds. William slowly comes to depend on Sugar as an advisor, confidante and lover, but she grows wary of her loss of independence and street sense that results from her love of William and his luxurious lifestyle.

Sugar eventually gains more respectability as she becomes the governess to the Rackham’s daughter, Sophie, but her meteoric rise up the social ladder comes to an abrupt halt as she finds herself emotionally entangled with all three members of the Rackham family and must make a choice about where her loyalties lie.

The Crimson Petal and the White provides interesting insight into the lives of prostitutes and their reasons for joining such a stigmatized profession. It also permits insight into tangled web of deciphering between sex and love. The difficulties in eradicating prostitution are explored, and with that, it looks at human culture’s fascination with prostitutes.

The book may not always paint a pretty picture, but it is a deeply absorbing story with enough scandal and intrigue to keep one reading until the last page has been turned. It’s a fairly hefty tome but worth the time required to read it. Don’t let required reading stamp out your desire to enjoy other books, especially trashy, scandalous novels about prostitutes in the back allies of history.

Contact Molly Griffin at mgriffin@nd.edu.