Although this is a tale about many, many characters, the majority of the book is dedicated to the lives of Miss Sugar, a prostitute, and Mr. William Rackham, a perfumer. Readers witness the horrid conditions endured by the lowly prostitutes as well as the stiff traditions of the upper-class Londoners as they participate in the Season's events.
At first readers may celebrate when William buys Miss Sugar for himself; at least, she does not have to perform for any number of men every night. But as the novel progresses and compassion for Sugar increases, one realizes that this is not a fairy tale after all. Sugar is visited less and less often although her fondness for William has grown. Her change in conditions also leads to her losing interest in the novel she so diligently worked on when she first met William.
There are numerous other troubles in paradise. Despite his accumulation of power and riches from his perfume business, William's family life is far from improving. His wife, Agnes, is locked in her room taken for a madwoman - much like the wife of Rochester in Jane Eyre. Perhaps the most traumatic event is that Sugar, now Sophie's (William and Agnes' daughter) governess, becomes pregnant with William's child - quite possibly the male heir he so desires. However, William terminates Sugar's employment upon receiving this news. Still mourning the death (suicide?) of his wife, William is not to be further disgraced. William transforms from an aspiring artist hoping to one day become a successful writer to a greedy businessman who loses all those closest to him.
Faber's novel has an open-ending; it closes with the "escape" of Sugar and Sophie. Readers never know where they are going or if they even make it there. Given Sugar's character, I think many readers will infer that they will be okay, but we will never know.
Faber also shows that despite the strict rules of society, tragedy cares not for one's social status. Contrary to what William's profession may suggest, one cannot make his/her life devoid of the stench of society and fate.
I tried to read this novel several years ago, but I ended up not finishing it. I am really glad I gave this novel a second chance. I rate it a 4/5.