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.