Review: Fingersmith

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

It seems that every book blogger I know or know of has either read Fingersmith or is meaning to read it. In fact, I think all this fervor can be traced directly back to Nymeth of things mean a lot. The author, Sarah Waters, is known for writing historical fiction with lesbian characters, particularly Victorian fiction. Historical fiction with queer romance? As an ace, I approve most heartily. I picked up Fingersmith expecting only what I’d read in summaries and reviews; I was not prepared for what it truly was.

Fingersmith follows Sue Trinder, a young woman and thief raised by Mrs. Sucksby, a baby farmer who kept her instead of selling her. Sue is offered a position in a long-term con by a “family” friend known as Gentleman. Gentleman plans on seducing and swindling an heiress, but needs Sue to pose as her maid in order to seduce her. In return, Sue will receive a fair share of the fortune. Sue agrees, and is soon off to Briar to be lady’s maid to Maud Lilly. But as the con wears on, Sue finds herself developing feelings for her mistress and something worse–morals.

I have to admit, I honestly thought that a summary like the one I have just provided covered essentially the entire novel, and I wasn’t quite sure how that could fill up 500 pages. I read cheerfully on, unsuspecting. And then the plot sucker punched me, leaving me dizzy and breathless. This, unfortunately, poses a problem in reviewing Fingersmith. I can’t tell you anything more about the plot without spoiling all the delicious turns and jaw-dropping twists it makes. (Well, I could, but I think reviews that spoil are kind of rude.) What I can tell you is this: the book is separated into three parts. The first part deals with the summary I have just given you. The other two parts open your eyes when you didn’t even know they were closed.

If I had to sum up Fingersmith in a word, it would be rich. Waters is absolutely at home in Victorian London. She makes it a living, breathing world from the street level up, from the heart Sue carved on her makeshift family’s dinner table to the supposed gentlemen who reveal their intentions too late. Sue lives among petty villains who distrust honest people and in a house that overlooks the gallows. Life at Briar is a thousand worlds away; retiring, punctual, and quiet. But it’s not only the world that is rich, but also the plot. It thickens from a broth to a hearty stew as the novel progresses, but never ties itself in a knot or grows too complex. It’s exactly the sort of tight plotting I like to see in mysteries and thrillers. Even the foreshadowing is deftly done, piquing your interest but never giving too much away. Perhaps that’s why 500 pages felt too short.

Fingersmith is written from Sue’s perspective, and she’s brought wonderfully to life by Waters. She’s both a sharp little thief and a girl spoiled by her caretaker, Mrs. Sucksby, with quite a distinctive voice. Watching her grow over the novel is thoroughly enjoyable; it’s a coming of age, in a way. The rest of the characters, especially Maud and Mrs. Sucksby, are executed just as well, but I can’t say anything more. Goodness, this must be what River Song feels like all the time. Poor thing.

Waters’ writing is efficient and uses sparing imagery to great effect–there’s a mechanical metaphor for Briar that’s just wonderful. But my absolute favorite piece of imagery is the image used for books trickling into a collection–they are things falling, every so often, to the floor of the ocean. It’s truly a unique eye that works in the character voice, which is a hard balance to strike. The romance is organic and startlingly well done; neither character realizes what’s happening until it’s almost right on top of them. (I’m not going to make a dirty joke, because I like to pretend I’m better than that.) These are two people drawn to each other against all odds, but I love how it’s not a perfect romance–Sue is still Sue and Maud is still Maud. That, my friends, is love.

There is so much more to Fingersmith that I want to tell you, but I can’t, because it’ll ruin it for you. This is a book you need to read without being spoiled to fully experience. All I can really say, in the end, is this: read this book.

Bottom line: Fingersmith is a deceptive novel–about a third of the way into a story about a Victorian conwoman falling for her lady mark, it sucker punches you and reveals a depth and a richness you didn’t even know you were blind to. The characters are wonderfully human and complex, the romance is organic, and the rich plot never grows too complex or slow. It’s thoroughly satisfying.

I rented this book from the public library.

24 thoughts on “Review: Fingersmith

  1. I have another Waters book on my TBR but I’ll be adding this one too. So many people love her writing and I need to pick up one of her books soon.

  2. I was like you – I’d only heard the summary of the first part, and thought it was the summary of the whole thing. I remember looking at my iPod as that part of the story was wrapping up, and was thinking “but… what on Earth are the other 16 hours of story for???”

  3. Yay, another Sarah Waters convert! I didn’t enjoy Fingersmith as much as I should have the first time, because I don’t like surprises, and the twist caught me completely off guard. Not in a good way! If I wanted to feel like that I wouldn’t be the sort of person who reads the end! However, when I reread it, I fully appreciated its brilliance.

      • I’ve read all of her other books (all, um, three of them) except Affinity. Tipping the Velvet was very good, although I had another end-reading problem with that one, so my favorite apart from Fingersmith was Night Watch. That one has a cool structure and I love the time period setting. But by all means, read TtV and then all her other books! She’s fantastic!

  4. For whatever weird reason, I found it slightly draggy in the middle (maybe it’s my short attention span?), and then had to stop because I had to return to Agnes, but I enjoyed what I was reading up until that point. I’m glad the rest of the book is worth reading. I’ll definitely pick it up again!

  5. Great review! I had read this book a long time back and I don’t recall it’s story in detail… Thanks for bringing it back, now I must read it again! 🙂

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  9. I didn’t find the twists particularly well-executed in this one. What started out as a wonderful novel became, in the last third, far, far, far to overwrought. And my reaction to the ending was much like that of my Neo-Victorian literature professor:

    “And then they wrote pornography together.”

    (said in a suitably angry tone)

    However, it was an enjoyable enough read. Put me in mind of “Lady Audley’s Secret” but a good deal *less* stupid.

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  11. I had read this before the BBC adapted it for the screen in 2005. Wow, what a knock out of a book (and series). For me, this is the best of SW’s novels. The world building, being at home in Lonson as the author is, is a joy to behold. After reading this, and Northanger Abbey, I truly believe I have not written a decent story in my life!

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