This book has captured the hearts and minds of readers and it has been acclaimed as the novel Charles Dickens should have written. As valid a comparison as that may be, it also reminds me of novels written by the Toms-Hardy, Wolfe, and especially that old voyeur, Peeping. Okay Peeping Tom wasn't a writer but according to the legend he gawked at Godiva as she preened in all her naked glory. Faber invites us to indulge our own voyeuristic fantasies as he deconstructs the rigid mores of Victorian society. Even if you don't have an insatiable interest in other people's business, it's hard to look away as he strips bare the passions, pretensions, and peccadillos of men and women who are bound by a hypocritical belief system and a highly stratified - but irrational - code of behavior. The really interesting stuff is happening behind closed doors. Like a disgruntled housemaid who hopes to catch the gentry misbehaving by surreptitiously peering through keyholes, we stare into a multitude of keyholes: at derelict flophouses, respectable suburban villas, seaside resorts - even a posh finishing school for proper young ladies.
We follow Sugar, an accomplished lady of the night, whose tastes run toward the literary, as she sets her sights on William, a misguided dandy, who is reluctant to assume the mantle of respectability. Ironically, he sets himself on that path so he can afford to install Sugar as his mistress, having grown weary of his increasingly deranged wife. Sugar is a wily survivor and an astute observer. As she comes to know the intricacies of polite society, after first maneuvering her way into William's flourishing perfume business and finally into his disharmonious home, Sugar comes to understand her mother's cynicism about the world, but she also craves an intimacy which William is incapable of fulfilling. William sees himself as a realist with a nonconformist bent, but it is difficult to see him as anything other than a narcissistic misogynist, although that probably would describe most of his male contemporaries. As a perfumer he has an uncanny ability to identify all sorts of scents, yet he is oblivious to the stinking rot of the inhumanity that surrounds him. Things take a turn for the worse when members of his family begin to disappear. While the ending is ambiguous, this Peeping Tom wouldn't have it any other way.