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.