I have never understood the concept of “beach”, “holiday”, or “summer” reading. The idea seems to be that, for some reason, when my toes are being lapped by a foreign sea, I want to read the sort of rubbish which I would not give shelf space to at home. Because my feet are damp, my brain must be too. Being the gullible type, I have fallen for this publishers’ spin in the past. I have packed “light”, much vaunted contemporary fiction in my carry-on bag and have optimistically bent back the first of the 600 or so pages as the A380 taxis. By the time we are at cruising altitude I have bounced the book off the window, have done the Qantas magazine crossword and will throttle the hostie if s/he does not come back soon with my Riesling. (NB, as P J O’Rourke says, if you really want to annoy a flight attendant, call him/her “nurse”).
So I usually pass by the type of books that appear on “Christmas reading” lists with a superior toss of my too too refined head. However, having admitted Michel Faber to the TVC circle of trust after reading Under the Skin and, having heard that each of his books is very different, I was tempted by one of those seashore monsters, and after a long fight with my book snob values, I gave in and read The Crimson Petal and the White during the silly season 2014.
Surprise, dear reader, for a “bad” book, it is a “good” book – pulp, but superior pulp. True, each of the characters is a standard Victorian-historical-melodrama type, but none of them follows the standard path for such a character. (The most interesting being Agnes). Those who claim legitimacy for the book go too far in comparing the writing to Dickens – that is laughable, but also unfair.
William’s precipitate and absolute infatuation with Sugar did bring to mind Philip’s obsessive need for the ghastly Mildred in Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – both writers take a risk and carry it off. But Maugham would not make the mistake of Sugar’s later “employment” decision. It is a move which she simply would not make and which is patently there to serve the plot.
So, although this is an undemanding book, I wouldn’t hurl it at the too slow drinks trolley. Although it is an absorbing read, I wouldn’t write a thesis on it. I would say that – if you must, you could read it by the pool – but not if your idea of a “good holiday” read is John Grisham or, on the other hand, Wittgenstein.