The Crimson Petal and the WhiteThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

like jane austen with dirty words.

i write that only mildly tongue-in-cheek; only future literary potentates will decide whether this book belongs in The Canon, as jane austen certainly does, but faber’s book certainly has equal scope and similar concerns, and fine, fine writing.

we contemporary humans tend to look at austen’s work in one sense as rather quaint–entire tomes about niceties of courtship and marriage, social position, and how the wrong hat can ruin a woman. but in fact these issues were economic, life-and-death issues for women who had few (to no) other options for financial security. faber certainly gets this, and he makes painfully, horribly clear what happens to those women who fail to make a good match.

and he gets women. his portraits of Sugar and Agnes are enthralling, Sugar in particular. the warps in her character caused by her debasement are painful (and sometimes, in a black humor way, very funny) and appalling. one can’t help but pity her, and not in an i’m-so-superior way, because faber makes us feel the inevitability of it. and yet she’s also extraordinary in her fight to retain her own dignity. i’m pretty sure that if i were in her little lace-up boots, i’d drink or drug myself to death at a fast clip, but Sugar fights and keeps on fighting for both her intellect and her heart. you just can’t help, in the end, but admire her.

i won’t witter on about all the characters. suffice it to say that by the end of the book, the main characters have all been treated to a painstaking examination, and none are perfect, but all are achingly human. warts and all.

austen had the advantage of writing about her own times, to an audience that swam in that sea; faber has the uphill battle of not only having had to do a brain-pounding quantity of research, but also having to convey the particulars to an audience only tenuously connected to the times. the details of this book are staggering, yet slipped in so naturally that readers will find no life preserver is needed. it’s an astonishing accomplishment.

it’s also so ingeniously plotted that you can’t put it down, a cruel thing in a book this long (and weighty). i’m going to toddle off and catch up with my sleep now, having been up til 1am finishing it off. you just go read the book.

Audiobook update: i loved this so much i bought the audiobook a year later, and found myself just as cruelly nailed to the couch listening to it as i did reading it. except, handy little iPod, i could take it anywhere, and i did. i could not turn it off… i have no doubt that i utterly scandalized the gate guards on my way into work every day, as the story wafted out of my car speakers. and even knowing it, i still could not turn it off, even for the minute it takes to get through the gate.