Orphaned as an infant, Susan Trinder was raised by Mrs. Sucksby, 'mother' to a host of pickpockets and con artists. To pay her debt, she joins legendary thief Gentleman in swindling an innocent woman out of her inheritence. But the two women form an unanticipated bond, which leads to the exposure of Gentleman's actual motives.
Sarah Waters sets out once again to prove Her Majesty wrong in her latest novel, Fingersmith, set - as her other two novels, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity - in Victorian London.
This is hardly niche writing - or even erotic fiction, although the few love scenes are tenderly drawn.
It is instead a tremendous read that draws the reader swiftly into the teeming life that thrived underneath the various repressions of the Victorian era.
The protagonist, Susan Trinder is an orphan child whose only knowledge of her mother is the London gallows she can see from her window where, she is told, her mother was hung, not long after Susan’s birth. She is being raised by Mrs. Sucksby, matriarch of a den of thieves, or fingersmiths. As a teenager, Sue agrees to help Mrs. Sucksby and her friend, the wily “Gentleman,” in a scheme that will leave all three of them wealthy.
Maud Lilly lives with her uncle in the country at Briar Estate, where she spends hours assisting him in his library. She may enjoy wealth, but she lives a miserable existence.
It is the intersection of these two lives that provides the impetus that drives the narrative forward and enables the author to engage the reader in the tangled web that she so cleverly constructs. And clever may be an understatement because just when you think you know where the plot is going, bam, it twists in a completely different direction. Twists, turns, up, down, back around until you finally come to the conclusion. Throughout the process, Waters describes the life and times of Victorian London in the starkest terms possible:
“At last I wake and do not sleep again. The dark has eased a little. There has been a street-lamp burning, that has lit the threads of the bleached net scarf hung at the window; now it is put out. The light turns filthy pink. The pink gives way, in time, to a sickly yellow. It creeps, and with it creeps sound—softly at first, then rising in a staggering crescendo: crowing cocks, whistles and bells, dogs, shrieking babies, violent calling, coughing, spitting, the tramp of feet, the endless hollow beating of hooves and the grinding of wheels. Up, up, up it comes, out of the throat of London.” (Page 367)
Waters puts you right there in Dickens’ London. Wonderful read. Very highly recommended.
It’s hard to summarize Fingersmith without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say, this book is set in Victorian England and includes a drafty old house, a crazy uncle, a secluded lady, a pickpocket, an opportunistic bastard and sex. While it sounds like another formulaic Gothic novel, trust me when I say it’s not. Dickens could have created the characters but only Sarah Waters could have delivered them in such a fashion.
Fingersmith wasn’t without flaws and some believability issues, but who cares when you’re ensnarled in good Victorian fiction? I especially loved the exploration of female love and companionship during this time. Many scholars have speculated about how intimate Victorian girls were, who often hugged, kissed, held hands and shared beds for warmth. It’s nice to read how true this affection could be between girls from this era.
For fans of historical fiction, I would highly recommend Fingersmith to you. Fast and furious, I believe most readers will find this stout book to be a real gem.
This is the first book by Sarah Waters that I've read, and I found her prose strikingly original. At once "Victorian" and yet modern, Waters sets just the right mood for the novel. The plot is extremely convoluted, yet is mostly handled expertly. There were a few times, especially in Part I, when I thought that perhaps Waters could have tightened things up a bit. However, this might have been intentional, as perhaps she was drawing the reader - like Susan and Maud - into somewhat of a lull before the first major plot twist.
As I finished Fingersmith, my husband asked if I thought he would like it, and honestly, I'm not sure. It seems very much a "womens" book in some way, but it took me awhile to figure out why. I think, however, it's because there is so much entrapment, hiding and escaping, somewhat reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." I can't be sure, but it seems as if a man might wonder at why Susan and Maud don't escape more readily from their situations, while a woman might more implicitly understand. It's been a long time since I've really thought about feminist criticism, but it seems there is something in this book that speaks deeply to a woman's understanding - or maybe, more accurately, her fears - of the world.
In any case, I really loved this book. It completely enthralled me.
Unfortunately, the end result is frankly dull, hobbled by weak characterization and self-importance.
And to try something new and because I'm trying to polish off the backlog of 2009 and 2010 book reviews by the end of the year, I'm just going to post some my off-the-cuff thoughts:
(Needless to say, SPOILERS)
- Characters are very thinly drawn. Even the two main ones, who first-person narrate the thing. Which brings me to—
- Too long by a third. The twists are not as shocking as Waters seems to think they are that, and are so telegraphed that they lose any punch. Particularly the first 150 pages serve no discernable purpose, and the repetition of that again from Maud's perspective kills any forward momentum.
I mean, geez, this is a salacious story! Con men! Underage Victorian lesbians! Pornography! Baby switching! But instead the story took itself way too seriously and didn't ultimately deliver on these premises. I wanted to see the thieving underground of London in action, or the pornography underground machinations, or the passion and fear of young love in a repressed society... and none of these were really fleshed out to my liking.
- Waters seems to be calling to unveil the Dickensian myth of women where they are confined to be either the super-virtuous or the uber-crafty. However, although Waters peppers the narrative with all these examples of women being victimized or gaming the system (the asylum, the baby switch, ‘mother’ing as profit, etc), she doesn't ultimately address it with any panache.
For example, the most important note of the ending is that Maud has started writing erotic fiction, for her own self-actualization, not out of need for money. Her uncle dehumanized her; his friends fetishized her. Her journey is that she is able to instead reclaim her vitality and her sexuality from their attempts to make her an object. And that she is able to prove her resilience and continue reclaiming her identity by raising her own voice into the fray... It's a damn big moment, and the extent to which it's sort of shoehorned in without much contemplation makes Waters seem a little tone deaf.
Also since, for all the “moral ambiguity” (aka gullibility), Sue and Maud do end up being victimized a lot.
- Similar themes and elements in Fingersmith reminded me a lot of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which I thought was a much more successful novel overall. ‘Cept there were no lesbians, but there was: examination of literary women (Nancy/Cinderella), art (erotica/painting), historical setting (19th century London/17th century Holland), central focus on two teenage females (one a servant, the other an eccentric ‘mistress’), and a morally-‘gray’ mother figure.
The juxtaposition of Victorian England's villiany and high society makes for interesting characters and schemes. The characters all have flaws and the dark side of their humanity is exposed. However, even with her faults, the main character Susan steals your heart. Several plots are interwoven in a web of deceit. It's wonderful!
Waters has a great talent and knows how to set a scene. This is the first book I've read of hers and I would recommend it to anyone who likes surprises.
The storyline of a plot about stealing an heiress’ fortune is a familiar one, but Sarah Waters manages to put a fresh spin on it. The jumping back and forth between characters, looking at the same thing from different eyes, all the while revealing more and more insight into her characters motivation, giving us a bird’s eye view the dark side of Victorian England, all blended together in one extremely satisfying read. Nothing and no one in this book is as they seem, keeping the reader glued to the pages, trying to grasp the significance of each detail. Speaking of details, this author knows the importance of description. Her words can instantly create an atmosphere, or place you into the scene by their sheer descriptive power.
I highly recommend this book and I am eager to read more from this author.
Review: Argh, this is one of those book reviews that I hate to write. And I hate to write it because this is one of those books that everyone absolutely loved. It's won scads of awards. It's on people's "best of the year" lists. People whose literary opinions I trust and value have strongly recommended it to me. It is, in short, a book that is beloved of everyone... except me.
So, where to start? We'll start with the good points. And don't get me wrong, this book has a lot of good points. It is a Victorian Gothic, which is a sub-genre I love, particularly when said Victoriana includes the poor, disenfranchised, and underworld-y side of London. Waters is undeniably skilled at evoking her setting and conveying a tone: I spent the entire book with not only a sense of suspense, but also with that horrible claustrophobia that comes from reading about people trapped in a situation from which they are powerless to escape. Her characterizations are well-done - both Susan and Maud felt real and layered, and their relationship was very subtly done and emotionally true without taking the "OMG, lesbians!" path it could have. Waters also handles her themes very well, particularly the powerlessness of women to affect their own fates during that time (which certainly added to the claustrophobia I mentioned above.) The plot was also insanely well-put-together, with twists that I never, ever saw coming, yet that interwove in such a way that everything came together in the end.
In short, this book had a lot of things going for it. So what was my problem? My problem was that I thought it dragged. Maybe it was the claustrophobia talking, but there were certain sections that just seemed to go on and on and on. I mean, why describe how stifling Maud's uncle's house was, when you can describe it three ways? Why give us one scene that shows that Sue's having second thoughts when you can write four or five? Maybe it's because I listened to the audio version (which was very well done, by the way) rather than reading it, and thus I had to hear each section without being able to skim when things got repetitive. I wanted to keep listening, because the twists and turns had hooked me in enough that I wanted to see how it all came out in the end, but I think this book could have been shortened by 30-40% without losing a single ounce of the things that made it good. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Although I didn't love it as much as most people, it's got more than enough redeeming qualities that if Victoriana and/or con-man stories are your thing, then I'd say it's worth a read.
I was really impressed by the period feel of this novel. It's written in a distinctly Victorian style, although perhaps less dry and wordy than many Victorian authors tended to be. (I was reminded more of Wilkie Collins' writing than anything; I found the one book of his that I've read so far to be much more lively than, say, Dickens.) Indeed, I might almost have been able to believe it to be an actual Victorian novel, if it weren't for the fact that it deals with certain sex-related subjects (and, occasionally, certain foul language) that no respectable Victorian writer would dare acknowledge the existence of. Although it is inevitably influenced by 21st century attitudes: there's a definite sense that the reader is being invited to sit back and pass well-deserved judgment on the Victorian era's treatment of women, among other things. But if there's ultimately a feminist sensibility to the book -- and I'd say there is -- it's one that's inherent in the story, not one that involves the author climbing onto a soap box.
The plot features a number of improbable-but-entertaining twists and turns that also feel very Victorian, as well as a touch of refreshingly unconventional romance, and the characters are generally well-rendered. It's certainly not a perfect book -- it loses some of its momentum in the middle, as we revisit earlier events from a different POV, and I do have a niggle or two with some of the character motivations -- but overall I quite enjoyed it. I may have to look for other books by this author.
It's hard to review this without giving everything away, but I will say that this is definitely a book worthy of being read without distractions.
Susan Trinder is a sixteen year old thief, known as a fingersmith, in Victorian London. When Gentleman comes to her family with an opportunity to con a young, innocent woman out of her fortune, Susan signs on and agrees to pretend to be her maid.
And that's all I'm going to tell you about it, because to say one word more risks spoiling too many things. What happens in this story is brilliant and surprising and oozes with moral grey areas.
Someone compared this to Dickens and I think it's an apt description. Many of the characters exist either in London's underground or in the obscure wealthy and each one is a unique and fascinating character. You could see them coming right out of a Dickens novel (think: Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, perhaps, or Fagin from Oliver Twist). The plot could also be considered quite Dickensian, I think. Although, for me, Waters is infinitely more readable than Dickens.
Although, I've only read this one book by her, I've also heard amazing things about Tipping the Velvet and I can already tell she's going to fall in with my all-time favorite authors.
The first 200-ish pages came in a quick spurt before class, and I found it a spellbinding if somewhat uneventful read. Until, that is, page 182. Then everything changed and this unassuming novel became a pageturner. Except that the next stretch of reading, roughly 100 pages read whenever I was free to do so, came slowly, as it examined the same events from a different perspective. Then, on an unassuming December day, 250+ pages begged to be consumed in violent, ravenous fashion.
All of which goes to show that Fingersmith, though enthralling, is a bit flawed in that its pacing is so deliberate but so uneven. It desires to fall somewhere between a serious literary statement and a pulpy page-turner, except that it switches between the two at inopportune times.
For those who have the patience and the willingness to read through its nearly-600 pages in a very short period of time, you'll be rewarded with a well-constructed, thoroughly entrancing yarn. Those who can't commit to Fingersmith will be likely less impressed, but fortunately even the more time-pressed reader will find enough here for he or she to want to keep flipping to the next page.
I'm not sure if it's literature or pulp, but I'm not sure that matters either. It's a fine, finely told story, with plot twists that would make James Patterson blush, and it feels Victorian enough that, even if you can't decide if it's pulp or literature, you'll be fooled long enough to read through to the end.
The time is 1862 and we are with a mix of characters from all classes. The way Waters moves between the different strata’s of society is impressive, making the journey both enjoyable and knowledgeable. Even the way the characters speak is entertaining and you find yourself supporting both Lilly and Maud at different times. I can’t wait to read more by Sarah Waters and can thoroughly recommend this. You won’t be able to put it down.
I raced through the book just to see what happened, and I wasn't disappointed by the ending. Definitely a good read.
This is Fingersmith.
I think it comes from being able to develop her characters so well, and you don't realize how much you've absorbed, until you finish the book and then want to call the 'girls' up and see how they're going -- too bad they didn't have phones back then -- ok, I'm rambling... ANYWAY --
It's been awhile since I read this one and yeah, with all I just banged on about character development and such, I can't remember their names, but I remember the story, good stuff -- not too complicated, suspensive, easy goes it, type read... I recommend it over, Tipping the Velvet, for shear good value.
But if you're out for a lesbian sex romp, 'Tipping the Velvet' is your book, not this one.
Sue is an orphan who lives in London in a house of petty thieves. A con man known as Gentleman convinces her to take a position as the maid of young wealthy heiress Maud Lilly, and in doing so, help him seduce and swindle her. The intimate nature of their relationship as well as the underlying plot allow the two girls to grow much closer than either anticipated, as each one has so much at stake.
I literally couldn't put this book down. When I had to leave the house I took it with me, hoping that I might get a moment to read a little further. There were so many plot twists, but the amazing thing was that it was actually smart and unpredictable.
I gasped out loud. I actually yelled, "No fucking way!!" on page 183 (only a third of the way into the novel). When I wasn't reading, I used up my brainpower guessing about what would happen next, how the heroines could get out of the situation. To put it bluntly, I was obsessed. Everyone I've talked to about this book has had the same experiences. So if you enjoy obsessing and agonizing over a novel that will overtake your life for at least a week and make you anxious and excited, then this is definitely the book for you. In fact, if you love fiction at all, you should read this book immediately.
Set in the 1840s, Fingersmith tells the story of Maud, a lady in fancy country house, with an eccentric uncle who makes her act as his secretary. He is at work on some mysterious lengthy academic project. She grew up in an asylum, where her mother gave birth to her and died. At age 11 her uncle sent for her. She is to come into a fortune when she marries.
Sue is a poor girl who has lived all her life among thieves in London. She goes to pretend to be a lady's maid to Maud, as part of an elaborate plot to swindle Maud out of her fortune. They do fall in love, which is romantic and sexy in parts, but nothing compared to the incredible plot twists that the scam they are trying to pull takes again and again, throughout the book. Incredibly well-plotted, well-written.
Believe it or not, I haven't really given anything away here, so go read it!
Imagine seeing the movie "Sixth Sense," and then seeing several more like it right afterwards, and each time, never having any idea of how it would turn out. This will give you an idea of the roller coaster ride that is Fingersmith.
Sue Strinder is a seventeen-year-old orphan raised by Mrs. Sucksby and Mr. Ibbs, who run a house in a dark and dirty section of Victorian London dedicated to petty thievery (fingersmithing) and scams. Mrs. Sucksby told Sue that her mother had been hanged for killing a man, and although the woman only paid Mrs. Sucksby to keep Sue for a month, here she still was, seventeen years later. Sue says, “What’s love, if that ain’t?”
One dark December night Richard Rivers arrives (he is known to the household as "Gentleman") with a proposal for a get-rich scheme. Gentleman, 27 and debonair if only in a faux way, has heard of a girl Sue’s age, Maud Lilly, out in the country west of London, who is to come into great wealth once she marries. If Sue would come to the house as Maud’s maid, she could help Gentleman con Maud into eloping with him. Then Gentleman and Sue would deposit Maud into a mental asylum and make off with the money. Mrs. Sucksby is delighted by the plan, and helps convince Sue it will make them all happy if Sue would agree.
And now I can say no more about the plot. But let me tell you that you will not be bored at any point in this 511-page book. The author’s prose is so evocative of 1862 London, with its crowded streets and its poverty and perverts and picaresque rogues, that it will come alive for you and suck you down into its dark interiors, just as life at Maud’s country estate is so well limned you acquire a sense of what a wealthier existence could entail down to smoke and ashes from "the sputtering fire in the vast old grate."
How purely the author gets to the heart of the matter! Listen to this exchange between Richard Rivers and Maud:
"‘You are a lady,’ he says softly, ‘and young, and handsome.- I don’t speak from gallantry now, you know that. I say only what is true. You might do anything.’
‘You are a man,’ [Maud answers.] ‘Men’s truths are different from ladies’. I may do nothing, I assure you.’"
There are many startling examples of well-crafted prose in this book that I cannot share for fear of compromising the plot. How precisely the author captures the sharp, bitter hurt of betrayal! How movingly she conveys tenderness and innocence, and how chillingly depravity. There are as many different gradations of cruelty and evil in this book as there are of warmth and love. Moreover, there isn’t a cardboard character in the lot; they are as complex but real as you could wish for in a book.
Evaluation: Sorry I can’t tell you much about why this is such a good book, but of course, that’s part of why it’s so good! Get this book and get ready to stay up late, to gasp, to cringe, to swoon, and to become a rabid fan of yet another wonderful author from the U.K.
"It seemed to me I was sharp enough. You could not have grown up in such a house, that had such businesses in it, without having a pretty good idea ... of what could go into what and what could come out."
Her life changes when their friend, the Gentleman, a con man with good manners and an upper class accent, comes to the house with a proposition: he has ingratiated himself to an old man in the country whose niece, Maud Lilly, stands to inherit a huge sum upon marriage. She is an innocent whom he thinks he can seduce and his plan is to take her away to marry, then put her in an asylum and so be the sole beneficiary of her inheritance. He needs someone on the inside to be Maud's maid so that she can help influence her to run away and marry him. He thinks Sue will be just the one for the job and offers three thousand pounds.
What happens next.....would be a crying shame to reveal. The plot is intricate, intriguing, surprising. I actually yelled out loud a couple of times when unexpected twists became apparent. It's been a long time since I've read a book that I absolutely hated to put down - but eventually I had to go to sleep!
Waters' descriptive writing is as dense as her plots: every room she describes is so detailed that the reader can smell and taste the air. Often when a writer spends so much time creating a mood it can stop the story cold, but this never happens in Fingersmith. The title is taken from the name for London pickpockets but Waters enlarges on it: the sense of touch, the presence of gloves, a brass plaque with a pointing finger embedded in a floor are all vividly present. These things sometimes point to the truth but just as often take the reader (and the characters) in the other direction.
Is it heresy to say that this book is every bit as good as Dickens? If so, then I'm a heretic and Sarah Waters is a genius.
Sarah Waters has written a brilliant tale of two very strong female protagonists, embellished with a number of colorful characters: Maud's uncle, whose life work is a scholarly study of pornographic literature; Mrs. Sucksby, who raised Sue and assists in running a petty thievery operation; and Rivers (Gentleman), who is as convincing as he is smarmy. I enjoyed every minute of this book; it was "un-putdownable".