Monday, June 28, 2010

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Wowza.  I don't think I have ever read a 600 page book so fast.  I know there are lots of glowing reviews of this novel on the blogosphere, and they are all true.  This is an amazing, brilliant book.  Why did I wait so long to read it???

I must disclose that I actually saw the BBC movie first -- which is nearly as good as the book, if that's possible.  The movie is wonderful, and when I saw the book at the library book sale, I bought it and it's been waiting patiently for me to read it ever since.  I actually thought I'd try another Sarah Waters novel first, since I already knew the story.  However, my good friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf is also reviewing it, so I was inspired to read it also.

Sarah Waters must be the best writer of neo-Victorian fiction, ever.  If you've ever been intimidated or turned off by the idea of Victorian novels, this could be the place to start -- it keeps the essence of the Victorians, but with less of the flowerly language and convoluted plots.

I can't say too much about the plot of Fingersmith, because, honestly, that would spoil it.  One of the best things about this book is the fantastic plot, which has some pretty jaw-dropping twists.  Basically, it's about a young woman, Sue Trinder, an orphan who's raised in a den of thieves in Victorian London.  I'm guessing in the 1860s since there's a mention of mourning for Prince Albert (who died in 1861).   Young Sue, who's been raised by a loving foster mother (unlike most literary orphans) is persuaded to pose as a ladies' maid and help swindle a young heiress out of a fortune.   However, things don't turn out as planned.  I'll stop there, because I could go on and on, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone.  It's very Dickensian, and the whole orphan/den of thieves motif is very reminiscent of Oliver Twist -- a very R-rated Oliver Twist, with a female protagonist (there's a little shout-out to Dickens in the beginning of the book, which I loved).

However, this isn't any kind of Dickens fan fiction or remake.  I'm not a big fan of literary sequels and remakes, and the comparison to Dickens pretty much ends there.  Oliver Twist is one of my favorite Victorian novels, but I've always found little Oliver to be a cloyingly perfect, and I'm not a big fan of Dickens' female characters.  They're frequently evil, or bland angels, or bad mothers.  In Waters' novel, the women take the center stage, and they are very three-dimensional.  They're far from perfect, but they're still sympathetic.   It takes a really talented author to make unlikeable characters interesting and compelling, and I found myself fascinated by these characters and sympathetic to their situation.  Women in Victorian times had so few choices, and poor women were worst off of all -- not much chance for education, not many jobs, and no rights.  It made me think about how so often people are products of their environment.

As much as I liked the movie, in a way I wish I hadn't seen it before reading the book simply because there were no surprises.  Yet it did not lessen my enjoyment of this novel one iota.  I still stayed up late at night reading it, and when I woke up early one morning, I could not wait to pick it up and finish it.

And the movie is fantastic.  The acting, the sets, the costumes are all wonderful.  I honestly don't know how they could have made it any better.  They did make a few minor changes, but I think that was mostly just to clarify plot points that are a bit more subtle in the book.  And of course, you miss the wonderful narration by the main character.  A movie can't possibly describe what's going on inside her head.  But it is absolutely wonderful, especially Sally Hawkins as Sue.  Lots of other great actors as well.

Now that I've finished this, I want to watch the miniseries all over again.  And I have a conundrum:  Sarah Waters has written four other novels -- do I rush out and read them all in a row, or ration them out to make them last longer?  It's a tough choice that I face whenever I find a new author I love.

This counts as book #8 for Our Mutual Read Challenge.  This review is cross-posted at Our Mutual Read


  1. Now that your review is up, I linked back to it. I'm glad you enjoyed this so much! I wish I could have to. I'm guessing I probably shouldn't read Oliver Twist either...

  2. Thanks for the link! I'm sorry you didn't like it. Maybe you'd like another Sarah Waters better. (I've already put Affinity on hold, I couldn't resist.) You might like OT because the criminals are not sympathetic, except for Nancy. There's a lot of good characters as well. I hope you do read it so we can discuss it someday. And I can't wait for you to read Bleak House!

  3. I liked Affinity better than Fingersmith myself, but I think that is because I read it first. I now really want to watch this movie! I didn't think it could do justice to the book, but if it can... :-)

  4. Glad to see that you have affinity on hold!

  5. Hannah and Aarti -- I'm really looking forward to Affinity - I also want to read Tipping the Velvet but the library has only one copy in the entire system (and of course it's checked out.) Curious.

    Aarti -- the movie's excellent, really worth watching. One of the best neo-Victorians I've seen.

  6. I agree with pretty much everything you said. Neo-Victoriana really doesn't get any better than Waters! Well, except for Atwood's Alias Grace, maybe.

    I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Affinity. I loved it, but it completely broke my heart.

  7. "it keeps the essence of the Victorians, but with less of the flowerly language and convoluted plots."

    I LOVE the flowery language and convoluted plots. The plots, especially, are the best thing about Victorian literature (at lest for the ones I've read). I'm not ready yet to give this a try because I'm probably in the "not like it minority". Plus, the R-rated Oliver Twist thing is a big thumbs down in my book too...

    I liked Oliver Twist for it's superficiality. Not a deep book, but a satisfying one.

  8. I actually think this book is closer to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White than any Dickens, there are a lot of similar themes and characters from Woman in White that Waters echoes in Fingersmith (the female doubles, the asylum) with a feminist twist, which I really enjoyed. I also watched the movie years before reading Fingersmith, which did take away the surprise but it's still so readable!

  9. Nymeth -- I'll have to try out Alias Grace. The last Atwood I read was The Blind Assassin, which I just loved.

    Rebecca -- I like the flowery language and convoluted plots too. I'm very fond of Dickens though I've only read about half of them. Bleak House is my favorite. Oliver Twist has flaws but I still love it too.

    Carolyn -- I see your point about Woman in White. The asylum really scared the bejeezus out of me. I'm sure lots of women were committed who were perfectly sane, and went crazy from the asylum. Reminds me a little of The Magdalene Sisters. I've heard it's a great movie but I'm sort of scared to watch it.

  10. I had the same reaction as you--it was an amazing read that I literally inhaled!! I've tried to ration her books out, but now I am down to just one left--her first, Tipping the Velvet. I think my favorite has actually turned out to be her last, The Little Stranger, but Fingersmith will always be a particularly favorite read!

  11. I loved, loved, loved this book. I read it the first time I did my "Booker Prize" project--trying to read all of the shortlisted novels before next year's list comes out. (I'm taking up the project again, after a momentary lapse).

    It's always terrific to read a well-plotted page-turner that's as smart and thought-provoking as it is clever. So glad you highlighted this book!

  12. Danielle -- people keep saying that different Sarah Waters books are their favorites, so I'm pretty sure they're all going to be excellent. I've checked out Affinity, which I hope to start this weekend, and I'm on hold for Tipping the Velvet.

    Tom -- I'm very impressed about your Booker Prize project. I have The Children's Book but havent' started it yet.