This week on the bookish internet

  • Whenever people ask why we still have Banned Books Week, I point to stories like this one from Virginia, where To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn were pulled from a school. (CBS Baltimore)
  • Dwyer Murphy reports on the dusty criminal underworld of rare book theft. (LitHub)
  • Emily Wenstrom clues readers in to some of the lesser known genres: the “punks.” (Book Riot)
  • All of the British authors complaining that Americans are eligible for the Man Booker just sounds like so much sour grapes. (The Guardian)
  • And speaking of literary prizes, the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award has been announced. (The Guardian)

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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The Color Purple

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has a reputation. Everyone someone asked what I was reading this week, they mostly responded with an appalled, “Why?” The book (and the movie) has cut such a swath across American culture that even people who haven’t read the novel know that it’s about terrible abuse and suffering. And yet, I chose to read it. It’s a classic of African American literature, but I think I read it just to find out what all the fuss was about.

The Color Purple has two distinct halves. The first half is the most brutal. In the first half, Celie is passed from one abusive man to another. She is raped, beaten, and treated as a domestic drudge. In the second half, Celie finally gains a measure of independence and the tone of the book shifts to astonishing forgiveness. (Astonishing to me. I guess I am not that forgiving.) Over the course of the book, Celie tells us about her life and ponders faith, the motivations of the characters around her, love, family, betrayal, revenge, and a host of other topics in letters to god. In the middle of the book, we also hear Celie’s sister, Nettie, through letters to Celie about Nettie’s life as a missionary.

I suspect that the reason for this book’s heavy reputation is that most readers don’t make it through the first half. It is relentlessly awful watching Celie hurt, beaten down, and debased. It’s so bad that one has to wonder at the purpose of the book. Why are we reading this terrible stuff? It feels voyeuristic to watch. But the second half is something else entirely. It would be easy to take the second half as an appeal for forgiveness for one’s tormentors. In the second half, Celie’s abusive husband (who she eventually separates from through her loving relationship with singer, Shug Avery) finally recognizes Celie’s worth. The relatives Celie thought drowned in the Atlantic return and the book has a surprisingly happy ending. All of the terrible things from the first half of the book are reversed. These reversals, however, were so odd and out-of-character that I started to wonder if Celie had actually died and this was her happier afterlife.

What interested me most was Celie’s relationship to god. All her life, she talks to god, because her father (who did terrible things to her) told her that she better only talk to god about the things he did to her. For the rest of the first half, Celie unburdens herself to god. But in that strange second half, Celie starts addressing her letters to the sister she still believes to be alive. At one point, Celie has a conversation with her friend and lover, Shug, about the nature of god that I thought was a turning point in Celie’s philosophy:

What God do for me? I ast.
She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death.
Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.
She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.
Let ’im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you. (n.p.*)

Celie never settles on a vision of god, but she knows it is not the white man she was taught about in church. After all, what did that god ever do for her?

In the end, I am more puzzled by The Color Purple than anything else. There’s a lot to think about, sure, but some of the characters never quite became real for me. I found the story flawed and implausible in the second half. I know that we are limited in what we can know and understand about Celie’s life because we only learn about it through the letters she writes. We can only know what she wants us to know. Usually, I can fathom an unreliable narrator’s motive but, even though I think I understood Celie’s mind, I can’t quite figure this book out.


* Quotes from the Open Road kindle edition.

Mãn, by Kim Thúy

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Mãn

There are some writers who make me think of the way painters work more than anything else. These kind of writers are not so much interested in plot as they are about building up characters or settings with layers of small details like Seurat or Monet. And, just like Impressionist paintings, books by painterly writers have to be viewed both closely and from a distance. Looking closely reveals details about how the writer is working; looking from a distance provides context. Without both perspectives, the meaning of the work gets lost. I’ve been thinking about this metaphor (which I know still needs work) since I finished reading Kim Thúy’s Mãn (translated by Sheila Fischman) last night. The novel is composed in very short chapters, most of them vignettes, that cover the life of the eponymous protagonist. These chapters reveal tensions in culture, gender, history, love, family, and fidelity.

Mãn tells us at the beginning of the book that she had three mothers. Mãn’s third mother, Maman, is a recurring figure throughout the book because she taught Mãn how to be a good Vietnamese girl, wife, and mother according to troubled upbringing. Everything Mãn is taught to be comes from her name:

[Mãn] means “perfectly fulfilled,” or “may there be nothing left to desire,” or “may all wishes be granted.” I can ask for nothing because my name imposes on me that state of satisfaction and satiety. (27*)

Maman grew up in a cruel home and came of age during the Vietnam War. It’s easy to understand that Maman wishes that her child, who she found in a field, would have everything she could ever ask for. And yet, Maman grew up in such a dangerous time that she thought it best to teach Mãn to be invisible but useful—as Mãn frequently describes herself.

We see Mãn enter an arranged marriage to an older emigré who runs a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. There, Mãn discovers that she has a talent for cooking. Her dishes remind her husband’s customers of what they left behind in Vietnam then, as her popularity grows, introduces Canadians to Vietnamese cuisine. With the help of a friend with much more ambition, Mãn becomes a successful caterer, cookbook author, and chef.

The more I read, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. No fictional character has that much good luck. And I was right. Mãn’s crisis comes when she suddenly falls in love with a biracial Vietnamese orphan in Paris. This relationship makes her both ecstatically happy and miserably lonely because it is so different from her relationships with her family. Mãn, even with all her success, kept up her habits of being invisible but useful. She gives, organizes, arranges, so that her husband and family want for nothing. They never have to ask. This is how Mãn was taught to love. But falling in love with Luc just showed her that everyone in her life is taking more from her than they are giving in return.

Part of what astonished me about this novel was the way that Thúy explores what happens when cultures are disrupted by war or transplantation to another continent. A lot of the meaning is lost. The subtext just disappears. For example, Mãn and Maman do not feel the need to explicitly show physical affection or say they love each other. Instead, Mãn tells us things like this:

[None] of the letters I’d written to Maman contained the three words “I miss you” or mentioned that I suffered from her absence. I had described to her the staggering number of shampoo brands in just one store because I hoped to pour water over her soapy hair again while she bent her head over the aluminum basin that we used for washing clothes. (104)

Passages like this one had me misty-eyed at the way mother and daughter could so subtly communicate their love for each other. Mãn does not have this with her husband, because he spent so much of his life outside of Vietnam. We don’t get to hear his perspective, but I suspect he thinks he won the matrimonial lottery with Mãn.

I found Mãn hauntingly beautiful. No words are wasted in this brief novel. I had to work to slow down and absorb what the book was trying to tell me instead of gobbling down the words the way I usually do. Thúy is simply brilliant.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who need to be reminded that mother-daughter relationships should be nurtured.


* Quotes are from the 2014 Random House kindle edition.

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

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A Passage to India

E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India, is a bitingly caustic look at race relations in British India. Anyone with any knowledge of the British Empire will know that the average British attitude towards any indigenous person in the colonies was a blend of condescension, racism, and paternalism. All of these attitudes are on display in varying intensities in this novel, along with the attitudes of the Indians (anger, frustration, hatred, occasionally aspirational). Two Englishwomen arrive in Chandrapore (fictional) to “see the real India” only to find two entrenched camps of people who are civil on the surface but absolutely loathe each other. One of the women causes a legal incident that threatens to destabilize the entire city—and offering us readers a chance to see what happens when someone throws a metaphorical matchstick on dry tinder.

Miss Quested has traveled to India for two reasons. The unofficial reason is that she will be renewing her acquaintance with Mr. Heaslop, the chief magistrate of Chandrapore. Mr. Heaslop’s mother, Mrs. Moore, very much wants the pair to marry; the pair have traveled together to see Heaslop. The second and official reason is that both Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to see India. I wrote it quotes before because India is such a vast country, with so many people and ways of living, that one could spend a lifetime trying to see everything. Still, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to try. Their initial efforts—a garden party with Indian and English guests, tea with a smaller group of Indians and Englishmen—fizzle into embarrassing failures. There’s too much history and too much prejudice on both sides for the ladies to make much headway.

Dr. Aziz, a complicated man who works as a surgeon and doctor for the English in a hospital, offers another chance for Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to see some “real India” by inviting them to the famed caves outside of the city. Aziz is fascinating because he is able to see the good in some English like his friend Dr. Fielding, but is infuriated by the casual racism and constant snubbing of the rest of the English. He is an educated, interesting man, yet he is always just another Indian to most of the English people he meets. In spite of all this, he offers to take Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to the caves. Unfortunately for him, the plan starts to fall apart almost immediately. Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore’s English chaperone and the local expert fail to make the train. Mrs. Moore has a bad reaction to the first cave. After she drops out of the little expedition, Miss Quested runs from another cave, into the cacti and sun, shouting that Dr. Aziz has assaulted her.

By this point, almost half of the book has pointed out just how fragile the civility between Indian and British is. The arrest and trial of Dr. Aziz on very flimsy evidence (mostly just racism than actual physical evidence) spark the sub-surface fury of the Indians. The fury of the Indians reminds the English of “the Mutiny” (the Indian Rebellion of 1857). Both camps circle the wagons, spreading hysterical rumors, and making plans for what might happen if things do turn violent. Forster writes:

But [Mr. McBryde] looked at him sternly, because he was keeping his head. He had not gone mad at the phrase “an English girl fresh from England,” he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed. All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated. (181*)

Affairs march on ahead of Miss Quested who, on reflection, isn’t entirely sure what happened that day in the caves after all.

The caves and the subsequent trial form an early climax in A Passage to India. The rest of the book centers mostly on Dr. Aziz, Dr. Fielding, and, to a lesser extend, Miss Quested, as they try to put their worldviews back together. At the beginning of the book, each was willing to reach across the aisle, so to speak, and form friendships that their co-nationalists warned them against. Many men, British and Indian, point to their long years of experience as their authority on the futility of fraternization.

I was expecting A Passage to India to end on a very depressing note. It is rather depressing for most of its chapters. And yet, there’s a strange feeling of stubborn hope at the end of the book. Dr. Aziz is not quite ready to stop trying, no matter what the English have done to him (though he is much more reserved than he used to be). Near the end of the book, Aziz meets the youngest of Mrs. Moore’s children and is able to form a friendship because the boy has no preconceptions of what he’s supposed to think of Indians. It’s possible, the book suggests, that both Indians and British can set aside their histories and prejudices and built anew in the future. It will be hard, but it’s not completely impossible.

The other thing that lightens A Passage to India is the commentary provided by the narrator. Everyone is a target for the unnamed third-person narrator. My favorite line comes from the furor after the attack on Miss Quested: “[The Englishmen] had started speaking of ‘women and children’—that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times” (202). The book is packed with small, pithy observations that puncture all of the deluded or bloviating character. So, even though this is a very serious book, about very serious things, the commentary had me snickering throughout. 


* Quote is from the Rosetta Books kindle edition.

The Book Collector, by Alice Thompson

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The Book Collector

I’m very glad I follow Australian reader Sophie Carlon. Without her recommendation, I would have missed the delightfully chilling The Book Collector, by Alice Thompson. And this would have been a great shame because Thompson’s brief novel captures some of the feel of Angela Carter, who I adore for the ways that she plays with the conventions of fairy tales. The Book Collector is another dark fairy tale come to life in which an innocent woman discovers that her husband is a monster.

To everyone else, Violet has all that a woman could want. She has a rich, handsome husband. She has an adorable child. And yet, something’s not right. At first, it’s little things. Her husband won’t talk about his first wife. Then he won’t let Violet read the book of fairy tales he had made for that first wife. Then he won’t let her read any of his books. Then the gaslighting starts. Before she knows quite what’s going on, Violet ends up in an asylum for women who are more troublesome than insane. And then, the murders start.

The Book Collector touches on a number of fairy tales. The women who are murdered reference “The Little Mermaid,” “The Red Shoes,” and other classic stories. Violet’s husband has more than a little of Blue Beard in the way he keeps his secrets and his willingness to threaten Violet when she pries too deeply. But, like Angela Carter’s female protagonists, Violet—once she figures out what’s really going on—does not resign herself to the part her husband has laid out for her.

There is another element of The Book Collector that fascinated me. Before I twigged to the fairy tale aspect, I was very interested to watch Violet navigate what might be post-partum depression. (I say might be because a) she’s being manipulated so much that it’s hard to tell if she is having as many delusions as her husband tells her she is having and b) Victorians did not have that diagnosis in their repertoire.) Violet loves her son and worries about him so much that she doesn’t want a nanny to raise him. This worry starts to eat Violet alive as she sees threats to her son everywhere. A little help might have helped her regain perspective, but her husband hustles her off to an asylum after Violet accidentally hurts her son when she hallucinates that the boy is covered in insects. The stay in the asylum taints Violet. Anything she sees or thinks that is out of the ordinary could be a sign that her “madness” has returned.

The Book Collector is a wonderful dark gem of a story. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

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The Magician’s Land

Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land is a satisfying and cathartic conclusion to a very smart fantasy series. On the surface, the series is about a group of magically gifted people who discover that the setting of their favorite childhood stories is real. They become high kings and queens of the land, have adventures, and play with magic. One layer down, it’s about a group of very talented people who have serious personality and self-esteem issues who have too much power. One layer below that, as we learn in The Magician’s Land, it’s about a group of very sensitive and intelligent people who’ve had their hearts broken by their parents and have no good models for how to be adults. All of the books center on Quentin Coldwater, more or less, who embodies all of these problems more than any of his friends.

Quentin Coldwater was exiled from Fillory in the previous books and has been searching for a way to return ever since, as well as figure out a way to resurrect his lost girlfriend. In the first book in the series, The Magicians, Quentin irritated me so much that it soured the book for me. But he has grown up a lot since then. As he’s gotten older, he’s learned that happiness is always tempered with imperfection when you’re an adult. You can never recapture what you had and expected as a child. So, Quentin finds work at his old magic school and settles down to, more quietly and cautiously, find a way to reunite with his friends.

A dramatic chase and confrontation lead to Quentin’s expulsion from the school, leaving him with no childhood refuges. To get money to fund his research, he takes a job to steal a mysterious case with some tie to Fillory for two million dollars. While the heist is planned, we are treated to chapters set in Fillory featuring Quentin’s friends. The plot regularly slows down while characters talk about their parental issues and the moments that forced them to leave their innocence behind. Thus, the major theme of this book: coming to terms with the end of childhood, whatever that might mean.

The other major plot involves the death of Fillory. Whatever magic is holding it together is failing. No one has any ideas of how to fix it. Even the land’s gods have gone AWOL. The whole thing works to fuel the plot as well as function as a metaphor for how childhood innocence cannot last; it always has to end. We all have to grow up eventually. That said, it pushes The Magician’s Land even further into melancholic retrospection.

There’s plenty of magic and excitement in The Magician’s Land. Grossman is talented enough to make these rather interesting, so that they don’t completely bog down the plot. Without the magic, though, this book could have been awful given how much psychoanalysis there is. I found the book to be immensely satisfying because the characters pulled through their trauma to confront their challenges. The characters, especially Quentin, have come a long way since their desultory days after graduating from magic school. The Magician’s Land, which began with resignation, frustration, and a certain amount of doom, ends on a brilliant note of hope for the future.

The Small Backs of Children, by Lidia Yuknavitch

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The Small Backs of Children

Every now and then, I run across a book that I can’t explain to other people. With books like these, the experience of reading it is more important than the plot or the characters. I still try, of course, but my attempt to talk about the book usually just ends up as a garble from a book-mad librarian. All this is a preface to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of ChildrenEven 24 hours after I finished the novel, I’m not entirely sure I know what really happened in this book. What really happened is not the important thing. Instead, the important thing is what you feel as this book swallows itself, over and over, like an ouroboros.

The book opens with an explosion. A young girl has just witnessed her family killed by a bomb. A photojournalist captures the event, then sends the film off to her editors. The editor sends the photo to the photojournalist’s ex-lover, a writer who turns out to be the center of this novel. At times, the girl and the writer seem to be living parallel lives of physical and emotional destruction. Other times, the writer sees the girl as a representation of her own stillborn daughter. A few times, the girl is a character in the writer’s novel. It’s hard to tell what’s real after a few iterations.

Though the writer is the center of the book (and the girl is sort of the center of the writer), most of the story is told from the perspectives of the writer’s family, ex-lovers, ex-husband, and the lover of the ex-husband. The only things they have in common are the writer and the fact that they all create art. When the writer suffers a mental break and goes deaf, blind, mute, and stops eating, they band together to rescue the girl from the photo in the hopes that it will bring back the writer from whatever dark place she’s gone. (All but one of the writer’s friends think this is a crazy plan.)

Throughout The Small Backs of Children, scenes and motifs repeat. The story we are told about the girl after the explosion appears, word for word, in the writer’s manuscript though there’s no way the writer could have known what happened to the girl. Because of this and other coincidences and parallels, it was really hard to tell if what I read was real or if it was taking place in the writer’s head. For some readers, knowing what actually happened is important and this book will absolutely drive them nuts. For readers who are more comfortable with ambiguity, watching the narrative flow into, around, and out of itself is fascinating. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Intellectually, it’s interesting. Emotionally, this book packs a wallop. By the end of the book, I was devastated by what I had read. The writer and the girl are so abused by the men around them that I wondered they could even function. In addition, several of the characters have very…complex…sexual preferences. Parts of The Small Backs of Children were very hard to get through. I stuck with the book because I wanted to see how (if) the author would resolve all the tangled plot threads. That didn’t happen, because this isn’t that kind of book. Like I said: ambiguity. But it was a very interesting journey.

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

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The Obelisk Gate

I’ve been enjoying the recent trend in fantasy literature that explores what happens after—after the big bad is defeated, after a major disaster. In addition to making all those political philosophy classes I took in college relevant at last, books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate offer a glimpse into a moment when survival meets idealism. When you’re scrabbling to find enough for your family to eat, is there time to fight a larger battle for equality?

The Fifth Season introduced us to a planet that regularly sees geologic disasters the cause (or have the potential to cause) mass die offs and extinctions. Orogenes have the power to manipulate stone, heat, pressure, and other forces and have been required to keep the continent safe from volcanoes and earthquakes on pain of death. At the end of that book, an orogene caused a potentially planet-killing earthquake. In The Obelisk Gate, the survivors have holed up in various comms (communities) and working as hard as they can to store up supplies for the long “fifth season” that’s coming. As if it wasn’t enough for the protagonists to cope with, they soon learn that there is a lot more going on that might kill them sooner than starvation or raiders. Oh, and their safe(ish) communities might tear themselves apart because of anti-orogene prejudice.

Because the planet’s human civilizations have been interrupted so frequently, Essun and her daughter, as well as the other characters, have lost a lot of history about past empires, peoples, languages, and even a rough narrative of what’s happened on their patch of earth. That history, unfortunately for them, has chosen this moment to emerge and make a play to force human extinction at last. Essun and her former lover and mentor, Alabaster, only have vague stories and artifacts of past civilizations to try and piece together the whole story of a) why their planet is so screwed up and b) who wants to kill off humanity and why. This is another reason why I like books that look at what happen after. Novels that end with a big showdown that eliminates whatever was wrong with the world make things look easy. If the protagonists take down the big bad, they’ll have a happily ever after. This new wave of fantasy brutally shows us that the reality is probably a lot more complicated than that.

The Obelisk Gate is beautifully constructed. It picks up soon after the end of The Fifth Season. There is little to no summary of what happened previously, allowing us to dive right back into things. Jemisin is a marvel at balancing continuing characterization and exciting subplots with furthering the larger story of the war between humans and the ancient stone creatures that are mostly out to get them. I want to hold this book up to would-be fantasy writers and shout: “This is how you do it!” The characters are so real that I can sympathize with almost everyone, even “enemies.” (Essun breaks my heart.) The world Jemisin created is just getting richer and richer, and the story is so engaging that I read this book in less than 12 hours.

Unmentionable, by Therese Oneill

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Unmentionable

I’ll admit that I was suckered in by the reviews of Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. How could I resist a book about Victorian life told with non-stop snark? Reading Unmentionable is a lot like sitting down with a hilarious friend who just went on a Victoriana kick and now wants to tell you the highlights of what they found. Unfortunately, Oneill uses the second person (why am I finding so many of these lately?) throughout the book and most of what she relates is par for the course. I would only recommend this book to people who haven’t read much social history about the Victorian era and want some background on the Victorian mindset in an easy-to-read format.

I could not stop comparing Unmentionable to Ruth Goodman’s much superior book, How to Be a VictorianWhile Oneill did quite a bit of research for this book, it’s primarily limited to advice books of the era. Advice books are aspirational; they tell historians what some people of the time thought people should behave. Advice books should be balanced against primary sources, artifacts, and whatever other information exists on how people actually lived during the time. After all, some of the advice (especially the medical advice) in those books is ludicrous—when it’s not outright detrimental to the health.

While most of the information in Unmentionable I already knew, I did appreciate the efforts Oneill did to dig up medical “expertise” and advice about menstruation and sex. Doctors of the Victorian era had some very strange ideas about menstruation and reproduction. I knew about hysteria, of course, but I had no idea that some doctors preached “ideal” menstruation. It’s clear these guys (and they were all guys) had never actually listened to women about their experiences. The medical literature of the time reads like a strange blend of sermonizing, half-remembered ideas from Hippocrates and the old boys of medicine, and pure guesswork. As for sex, well, there were so many social rules it’s a wonder that any of us are here at all.

Unmentionable is a breezy overview of Victoria life as seen from the advice books for the upper class. How to Be a Victorian is a better read for those who want to know what life was like for the full strata of Victorian society, with the added bonus of first hand experience as the author talks about wearing Victorian clothing and following their hygiene routines.

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber

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The Crimson Petal and the White

In spite of one irritation, the massive The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber turned out to be a good book to take with me on my travels this week. The rich setting and even richer characterization of the novel were so captivating that I was able to drown out the noise of planes, the other passengers, and my own discomfort at being stuffed into a flying bus with too small chairs. Instead of all that, I was treated to a sprawling Victorian novel that explored lust, madness, neglect, hypocrisy, selfishness, altruism, prostitution, and religion. Faber’s characters are set up in opposition to each other so that, while they interact with each other, you get a chance to ponder how social status and life can push people into divergent trajectories.

The Crimson Petal and the White sidles into being with a narrator who guides “You” into the world of mid-1870s St. Giles in London. “You” will follow a few characters until you meet William Rackham and Sugar, the main characters of the novel. (The second person thankfully fades away after a few chapters.) William is a dilettante who is avoiding taking over his father’s perfume and soap business while dealing with his wife’s increasing religious mania and mental instability. One night, William wanders through St. Giles seeking a prostitute who is known for her willingness to do anything: Sugar. He finds her and becomes obsessed with her after one night. He even sets her up in her own apartment as his mistress. Later, he will even follow her suggestion to hire her as governess for his neglected daughter. But this is just the first part of Sugar’s story. While we begin with William, the bulk of the novel will be about Sugar and her efforts rise up in the world.

In contrast to William and Sugar’s relationship (mostly lust), we also see the relationship between William’s brother and his friend. Henry Rackham and Emmeline Fox have a completely platonic relationship, though they are very much in love with each other. Their religious convictions—Henry is so self-loathing he can’t become the parson he wants to be and Emmeline is devoted to finding alternate employment for London’s prostitutes—prevent them from admitting their attraction and feeling for each other. As I read about Henry and Emmeline and Sugar and William, I was reminded of the paired relationships in Anna Karenina. In Anna Karenina, one couple is held up as the ideal—the married, loving couple—and one as a moral lesson—lovers who cast off society and are later ruined by it. But because The Crimson Petal and the White was not actually written in the nineteenth century, the morality and psychology of the story is much more complex.

The first half of The Crimson Petal and the White is very much about developing relationships between men and women. The latter half (especially the last third) explores relationships between parents and children and how those relationships can permanently damage the children’s psyches. When Sugar becomes governess to Sophie Rackham, she learns just how neglected the child is. Her mother, Agnes, is so adrift from the world that she doesn’t believe she has a child. William is so tied up in his business and his own worries that he ignores the child. Sugar is the first person to show Sophie any interest and affection. At the same time, Sugar has also gotten ahold of Agnes’s diaries and is learning how the poor woman became so lost. The diaries and working with Sophie also stir up Sugar’s partially repressed memories of how her mother pushed her into prostitution at the age of 13.

While the first half definitely had me hooked, I really loved how Gothic the novel got in its second half. Agnes is so troubled and so interesting that she could have starred in a novel of her own. I was also glad to see that we finally got to see more deeply into Sugar. When we first meet her, we only see her from William’s lust-crazed point of view. After she takes over, we learn that she was writing a novel based on her own life in which she got revenge on all the men who took advantage of her situation. Her psychological armor slowly chips away during her “rise” to respectability and we finally see her as more than the poor victim that Henry and Emmeline would classify her as and as more than a paid partner for William.

There is so much to unpack from this novel that I fear I’m rambling. (Not surprising, given that this novel is about 900 pages long.) The Crimson Petal and the White is a fascinating, meandering novel that uncovers so much about the less savory side of Victorian thought and life that I could spend three times as long remarking on the events and ideas that I’m still thinking about now that I’ve finished it. This is the kind of book I would push on my fellow readers just so that I have someone to talk to about it.