Fingersmith

I shall begin this review with an embarrassing confession. For years, I let NPR (National Public Radio for my non-American friends) keep me from reading anything by Sarah Waters. “How could that be?” you may be asking. “Wouldn’t NPR, the land of enlightened literariness be all about praising Sarah Waters?” Yes, you’re right, but it was the praise that led me astray.

You see, the first I’d ever heard of Sarah Waters was an interview with a producer or some such person from Masterpiece Theatre talking about the adaptation of Tipping the Velvet that was debuting that week. The only thing the interviewer seemed to want to talk about was the fact that this was a very sexy story about lesbians. Now, I have no objection to a good sexy story, straight or gay, but I don’t want eroticism to be the point of the story, and that particular interview led me to think that all of Waters’s books were nothing but erotic fiction in a Victorian setting. So I had filed Sarah Waters away as Victoriana’s answer to Diana Gabaldon and figured she was on prize lists because the prize committee liked to look progressive, not because her stories had much to them.

But then I entered the blogosphere and found that many bloggers whose opinions I value love Sarah Waters. When I mentioned my impression of Waters to Jenny, she assured me that I had been led astray and told me that she thought I’d like Sarah Waters. And when Sarah Waters showed up on the Booker shortlist last year, Jenny and I read and reviewed The Little Stranger, which I loved to pieces and decided then and there to read as much Waters as I could.

And so we have Fingersmith, probably the most beloved of Waters’s books. For the handful of you who haven’t read it, here’s a brief run-down. Sue Trinder, orphaned as a baby when her mother was hanged for murder, lives among thieves in the Borough section of London. Early in the novel, a man known only as Gentleman offers her a chance to earn two thousand pounds by helping him in a plot to steal the fortune of wealthy young woman named Maud Lilly who lives in a large country house with her uncle. The plan is for Sue to go into service as Maud’s maid, convince Maud to marry Gentleman, and then testify to the authorities that Maud is mad so that she will be put away, leaving Gentleman with all of Maud’s fortune. That’s the setup.

Of course, as with any good heist story, there are complications. Sue finds herself irresistably drawn to Maud. Her conscience becomes plagued with guilt about the plan, but with Gentleman there, she can’t see a way out. And eventually circumstances take some surprising twists, and then they twist some more, and more. There are shocking revelations and secrets aplenty. It reminded me more than once of the Wilkie Collins masterpiece Armadale.

And that is all I can say about the story. It’s elaborately plotted, filled with details that don’t seem significant at first or that take on different meanings as more information is revealed. The characters are also elaborate creations. Sue and Maud, both of whom get opportunities to tell their stories, have their own unique voices, and neither is entirely pure or entirely evil. And the supporting cast is well-drawn, although admittedly light on likable characters. The descriptive writing is also amazing. I could see, hear, and smell Sue’s London neighborhood. I could picture the grounds of Briar, Maud’s home, and feel the oppressive isolation. The writing is vivid and detailed without bogging down the action.

But lest you think this is a mere wild ride of a Victorian thriller, let me assure you that Waters uses the twisty plot to explore interesting ideas of class, sexuality, propriety, education, family, sanity, freedom, and identity. A novel need not offer thematic depth of this kind to be worth reading, but a novel that manages to both thrill and provoke thought is something special. Fingersmith is indeed something special.

See other reviews at Jenny’s Books, Farm Lane Books, Books I Done Read, Things Mean a Lot, Caribou’s Mom, Fluttering Butterflies, Bookbath, another cookie crumbles, Trish’s Reading Nook, The Written World, Booklust, S Krishna’s Books, Rhapsody in Books, Page 247.

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44 Responses to Fingersmith

  1. Nymeth says:

    I’m so glad you loved it, Teresa! You know, I actually had a somewhat similar impression of Waters before I read her. I can’t pinpoint where I got it, but I thought her books would be somewhat…trashy? I didn’t even think they were erotic necessarily; I just thought the writing wouldn’t be anything special. Then a couple of book bloggers recommended Fingersmith to me and ha, how I swallowed those words :P

    Also, I need to read more Wilkie Collins, namely Armadale.

    • Teresa says:

      Ana, you do need to read Armadale. I loved it so much, and I would be very, very surprised if it weren’t a direct inspiration for Fingersmith.

  2. NPR wouldn’t steer you wrong! Fingersmith is my favourite Waters novel though, like you, I held off reading it because the only reviews I’d seen were obsessed by the lesbian-angle. I finally picked this one up and then I couldn’t put it down! So glad you liked it.

  3. Lenore says:

    Fingersmith is indeed one of my favorite all time reads. I loan it out to everyone!

  4. Jenny says:

    I’m glad you liked it! I think this is her best one, but I’ve enjoyed all her books a lot (apart from Affinity, which I need to return to soon). I know Little Stranger just came out last year but I am ready for her next on already! :)

  5. This sounds like a marvelous book- too bad some reviewers can’t see past the gay angle. I’m definitely going to pick it up.

  6. Danielle says:

    Too bad they emphasized the lesbian aspect of Tipping the Velvet, though I think it’s more pronounced in that book than in her others. I think she’s marvelous and should definitely not be defined solely by the fact she happens to be a lesbian. It’s hard to choose a favorite of her books–Fingersmith was my first book by her I read and she totally bowled me over. Talk about pulling the rug out from under my feet and I loved that she was inspired so much by Wilkie Collins. I think ultimately though The Little Stranger is my very favorite. I wonder what sort of book she will write next.

    • Teresa says:

      Danielle: I’d have a hard time choosing between this and The Little Stranger. I loved Fingersmith almost from almost the first moment, and although I enjoyed The Little Stranger all the way through, it wasn’t until the last couple of pages that I was utterly bowled over.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I just finished reading this one today and LOVED it!

  8. Swapna says:

    So glad you enjoyed this one like I did!!! I’m glad you gave Waters a chance.

  9. Yay to Sarah Waters! Love her writing.
    We did an interview with her on our blog if you are interested in reading it :
    http://thebookclubblog.co.za/?p=286

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for the link. I was intrigued to see that Waters did her PhD thesis on lesbian and gay writing in the 19th century. That element of Fingersmith felt well researched, but it’s not always clear to me when something is well researched or well imagined.

  10. Kristen M. says:

    I had the same view as well — that her books would beat me over the head with Victorian lesbianism and not be strong on quality. But, like you, I’ve also been convinced by the blogging community to give her books a chance. I have two books by her now on my TBR pile (Fingersmith and The Night Watch) and I hope to get to one of them soon. I have a feeling that I will love them.

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen: I’m glad to know I wasn’t alone in my misconception! I think you will love this one, especially given your affection for Armadale.

  11. Deb says:

    My favorite Sarah Waters’s novel is THE NIGHT WATCH, which set during and after WWII in London. It’s told backwards in three large sections, which seemed gimmicky until I started reading it and realized that Waters was less interested in what had happened to the characters than how it had happened–and telling the story backwards allowed her to do that. I really enjoyed FINGERSMITH too–especially the twist right in the middle of the story.

  12. Wendy says:

    So glad you gave Waters a chance…she is a brilliant author and Fingersmith is indeed one of her best! Great review. And thanks for the link to mine :)

  13. Frances says:

    I too have had the wrong impressions of the author for a long time but am ready to take the plunge. Only read the top part of the post today as I want Fingersmith to come as a surprise as so many of you have clearly loved it. Happy reading!

    • Teresa says:

      Frances: Glad to hear you’re ready to give Waters a try. She’s just the thing when you’re in the mood for something twisty and atmospheric. I hope you enjoy her books as much as I have!

  14. Steph says:

    Teresa, I think I avoided Waters for much the same reason you did. When I first heard about her, I admit that I thought she sounded kind of gimmicky, and I though she was getting hype because of how unconventional her novels were. But having seen so many respected book bloggers now rave about her (including yourself!) I do think I need to give her a try!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: Her books are unconventional, I think, but not in a gimmicky way. I was expecting something like Crimson Petal and the White, which, IMO, relied on the ability to be frank about sex in order to tell a Victorian story that couldn’t be told in Victorian times. The two Waters books I’ve read could perhaps not have been published in their periods, but they don’t rely on that fact–if that makes any sense.

  15. farmlanebooks says:

    The Fingersmith is one of my all time favourites – I’m so pleased that you enjoyed reading it too!

  16. Gavin says:

    Teresa – I may have unconsciously avoided Waters for the very same reason. I’m glad I listened to trusted bloggers and finally read the book. Thanks for this great post.

  17. Pingback: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters « Page247

  18. Melissa says:

    So glad I wasn’t alone in my thoughts on Waters. I avoided her for the same reasons and have recently decided to read her because of all the great things bloggers have said. I’ve got The Little Stranger at home from the library, but Fingersmith will definitely be next on my list. Thanks for the great, and honest, review!

    • Teresa says:

      Melissa: I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one who suffered from this misconception. (Well, I’m sad this misconception is so widespread, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who got the same impression.) I hope you enjoy Waters!

  19. litlove says:

    I did enjoy this one – the twist was one of the best twists I’d ever come across, I think. I love Waters, but I always feel like I need to take a couple of deep breaths before beginning one of her books. Not that that’s a bad thing – just that I have to be in the right mood.

    • Teresa says:

      litlove: The twist was astonishing! I knew there was a twist, but this still took my breath away. I had to put the book down for a while I was so stunned. (Part of my surprise had to do with thinking the twist was at the end, so I was totally flummoxed when “the thing” happens.)

  20. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Luck in the Shadows, Fingersmith « The Literary Omnivore

  21. rebeccareid says:

    I am glad I am not the only one who’s had that impression of Sarah Waters. A comparison to Armadale gets me interested, though! Although must read that first according to my internal TBR list.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: I’m so enjoying the comments on this post because I was convinced that I was the only one who had this impression of Waters! But I loved this in much the same way I love Collins.

  22. Tara says:

    I’m so glad you read this – it’s one of my favorite books ever! I do need to give Wilkie Collins a go someday, though.

  23. Fingersmith’s my favourite Waters novel as well, so I’m obviously glad that you loved it! The twists were incredible, and I think a lesser story-teller wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.

  24. Pingback: Sarah Waters – Fingersmith « Fyrefly's Book Blog

  25. Pingback: BBAW 2010: Unexpected Treasure « The Literary Omnivore

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