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The Crimson Petal and the White


The Crimson Petal and the White Cover



Reading Group Guide

Q> The novel's title implies the distinction between virtue and immorality. In your opinion, who are the sinister characters in the book? Who are the heroes and heroines? Q> What makes the late nineteenth century such an appropriate time period for this narrative? How might the storyline have played out in the twenty-first century? Q> Temptation and cravings fuel much of the novel's plot. By your own standards, are the characters shockingly lacking in self-control? Or do you feel they cope well in the circumstances? Q> Do you detect any common denominator among the novel's female characters (especially Sugar, Agnes, Mrs. Fox, and Mrs. Castaway) in spite of their seemingly disparate motivations? Q> William receives nearly constant assistance from various hired women. In what way is Sugar's subservience different from that of the other servants, both before and after she becomes Sophie's governess? Q> The Crimson Petal and the White contains dozens of religious references, including Sugar's being mistaken for an angel, Agnes's superstitious hunger for Catholicism, The Rescue Society's moral mission, the radical proposals in The Efficacy of Prayer, and debates about creationism. Is religion harmful or beneficial to the characters in this novel? Q> The theme of cleanliness versus filth pervades the novel, with William's products nearly comprising an additional character. Considering the fact that even the upper-crust residents of Notting Hill had to do without indoor plumbing, what is the effect of these details about ablutions? Q> Critics have compared Michel Faber to many literary lions, ranging from Charles Dickens to Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen. In what ways does literature appear to have evolved over the past two centuries? Q> How does Michel Faber keep the reader hooked and entertained throughout a lengthy epic? Did the devices work for you? Q> Does any authentic love occur in the novel? Are Sugar and William in love? Q> William's pious brother is the extreme opposite of Ashwell and Bodley. Do these minor male characters in any way reflect aspects of William's persona? Do you believe that Ashwell and Bodley were merely included for comic relief? Discuss the irony of Henry's death. Q> The characters in The Crimson Petal and the White live under the shroud of considerable misinformation, including Doctor Curlew's inability to diagnose Agnes's brain tumor and Sugar's rudimentary birth-control methods. Would modern medicine have kept their lives trouble-free? Q> Discuss Sugar's transformation from no-nonsense prostitute to maternal romantic. What role did the ironically named Priory Close location play in this transformation? What choices would you have made had you been born into Sugar's circumstances? Q> For all its Victorian trappings, The Crimson Petal and the White also showcases some expert postmodern features, such as a narrator who frequently reminds us that we are reading a novel-his novel-and that he will decide which point of view we receive in each scene. In what way does this narrator act as a kind of literary seducer, luring us to follow him to the very end? How do the novels within the novel (Sugar's sadistic bodice-ripper, and Agnes's imaginative diaries) affect your reading experience? Q> The novel ends by posing a terrific "what if." Speculate about the futures of Sophie and Sugar. Why do you suppose the author chose to give the closing line to Caroline? What might this suggest about William's fate?

Copyright © 2003 by Harcourt, Inc.

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Average customer rating based on 8 comments:

lukas, February 17, 2015 (view all comments by lukas)
Michael Faber is writing a Victorian novel from a 21st century perspective and if you've read even a few novels from the period ("Middlemarch," much of Dickens, "Vanity Fair"), you know that they ran long. Henry James called them "large loose baggy monsters." Faber's Victorian world is vulgar, filthy, hypocritical, and violent; everything that people typically think the era was not (it's worth noting that only the very rich had anything like indoor plumbing). His protagonist is a whore who successfully becomes the mistress of a wealthy, venal businessman and her rise parallels the common Victorian novel theme of the aspirational protagonist. It's a bravura piece of work that both vividly evokes the era, while also casting a cynical, critical eye upon it. Yes, it is long (he worked on it for nearly two decades), but it's necessarily for the wealth of detail, the narrative sweep, and the character developments. Nothing less than one of the great novels of this century. Please ignore the negative comments, this is a monumental achievement.
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Sobri, February 2, 2013 (view all comments by Sobri)
If I had to give a one-word response to the big, sprawling monster of a faux-Victorian novel that is The Crimson Petal and the White, it would be 'WOW'. (With capitals. Yes.) At 895 pages, it's a big book, and it's not without its flaws, but such is the quality of the writing, the characterisation and the staggering amount of research that went into it that I was enthralled from beginning to end and stayed up until 4am on a weekday night to be able to read the last four hundred pages. I don't regret the sleep I lost that night; if anything, I regret that there weren't four hundred more pages to stay up for. That's how much I liked the book.
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ryan stuart, June 29, 2011 (view all comments by ryan stuart)
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.
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Product Details

Faber, Michel
Mariner Books
Orlando, Fla.
Great britain
Historical - General
Young women
Historical fiction
Perfumes industry
General Fiction
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Number:
1st Harvest ed.
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
September 1, 2003
8 x 5.31 in 2.04 lb

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The Crimson Petal and the White Used Trade Paper
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$5.95 In Stock
Product details 920 pages Harvest Books - English 9780156028776 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Tell[s] a good story grippingly and colorfully... An old-fashioned page-turner with pleasingly new-fangled twists."
"Review" by , "[An] enthralling melodrama....It's hard to imagine...that readers who hunger for story won't devour this like grateful wolves. Riveting, and absolutely unforgettable."
"Review" by , "Gorgeous. Capable of rendering the muck of a London street and the delicate humming-bird flights of thought with equal ease."
"Review" by , "[A] gloves-off kind of novel, one not to be passed along lightly to your grandmother. Cocky and brilliant, amused and angry, the author is rightfully earning comparisons to observer extraordinaire Charles Dickens."
"Review" by , "Ambitious and accomplished ... Nothing could have prepared readers for the sweep and subtlety of The Crimson Petal and the White."
"Review" by , "[D]on't wait for the movie. Read The Crimson Petal and the White now, while it's still a living, laughing, sweating, coruscating mass of gorgeous words....And although it's almost 300 pages longer than The Corrections, miraculously it feels shorter."
"Review" by , "Readers...are in for a lasting love affair; the intimate relationship one develops with the characters after reading for 834 pages is much more staisfying than the mere one-night-stand promised by most novels."
"Review" by , "If you start reading this suspenseful, beautifully written novel, with its compelling characters, subtle psychology, wit and heart, you won't be able to stop."
"Review" by , "[B]reathtaking....[P]art saga, part morality play, and utterly engrossing....This massive work is startling and absorbing. Readers will not soon forget the richly drawn world into which they have been enticed."
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