Apr 6, 2009

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

At the start of Fingersmith we meet Sue Trinder, an orphaned girl who’s being raised in Victorian London’s dark Land Street by Mrs Sucksby and a group of petty thieves – fingersmiths. One evening, Richard Rivers, a ruined gentleman, comes to them with a plan: Sue is to pose as a Lady’s maid and go with him to a country house. There, she will help him win the heart of a heiress, Maud Lilly, and then cheat her out of her fortune.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you, I’m afraid. Nothing in this book is what it seems, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for you by saying too much. Nick Hornby said that this book “has one of the most startling plot twists you’ll ever read,” and he’s absolutely right. The twist – the first of them, because there’s more than one – took my breath away.

And you know how sometimes just knowing there’s a twist can ruin things a little bit for you? Well, that’s not likely to happen in this case. I knew there would be one from the first page, but not in a million years would I have guessed what was coming.

Also, you know how with most books you can, after a certain number of pages, more or less see the shape of the story, and give or take a few details, guess how it’s going to end? With Fingersmith, until the very last page I had no idea how the story was going to end. And this doesn't necessarily have to do with the twist. It goes beyond that. Everything about this book was unpredictable, and my heart was in my hands the whole time.

Being so afraid of spoiling this book for others also means that unfortunately I can’t even say much about the themes, about what I found so brilliant, about why I loved it so much. But please know that I did love it—it’s one of my favourite reads of the year so far, and I seriously suspect I have found a new author to add to my list of favourites.

This is what I can say: sexuality is dealt with, but that's just the beginning of it. More than that, Fingersmith focuses on the silences, the misunderstandings, on how an action can be perceived so differently by the different people involved. It focuses on the little space between people – the almost gestures, what is never said. Sarah Waters is absolutely brilliant at portraying that. Also, it deals with how the concept of madness was used do discredit and control women, and with the horrors that went on inside Victorian insane asylums. And sadly, now I have to shut up.

Recently I mentally gave Ali Smith a Most Beautiful Sex Scene Award, but I’m afraid I just might have withdraw it away to give it to Sarah Waters instead. I realize this makes little sense out of context, but that second “you pearl” simply ripped my heart out of my chest. And finding books with gay sex scenes this beautiful, this well-written and this emotional always makes me happy, as it shows – guess what – that people feel the same regardless of sexual orientation. Which should go without saying, but sadly still does not.

I also loved the atmosphere – Fingersmith is Victorian Gothic at its best. Secrets, crimes, dark alleys! Silent mansions, betrayals, fear of madness! And even more things I unfortunately can’t tell you about. And the writing—the writing is stunning. I guess Fingersmith is a plot-oriented novel, in the sense that the plot really, really matters, but the writing and characterization are every bit as good as the plot. It’s both plot-driven and character-driven, and that’s hard to achieve.

I realize I completely failed to do this book justice, but my hands are tied here. To summarize: I couldn’t put Fingersmith down, and once I was finished with it I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. I now want to read everything Sarah Waters has ever written. She’s that brilliant.

Sadly I can’t even share most of my favourite passages, because after a certain point in the story everything implies spoilers. But here are a few carefully chosen ones, mostly from early in the book:
All day I sat or walked with her, so full of the fate I was bringing her to I could hardly touch her or meet her gaze; and all night I lay with my back turned to her, the blanket over my ears to keep out her sighs. But in the hours in between, when she went to her uncle, I felt her—I felt her, through the walls of the house, like some blind crooks are said to be able to feel gold. It was as if there had come between us, without my knowing, a kind of thread. It pulled me to her, wherever she was.

There is no patience so terrible as that of the deranged. I have seen lunatics labour at endless tasks—conveying sand from one leaking cup into another; counting the stitches in a fraying gown; or the motes in a sunbeam; filling invisible ledgers with the resulting sums. Had they been gentlemen, and rich—instead of women—then perhaps they would have passed as scholars or commandment staff—I cannot say.

I watch her turn and stretch, walk her random way about the room—see her make all the careless unstudied gestures I have marked so covetously, for so long. Is this desire? How queer that I, of all people, should not know! But I thought desire smaller, neater; I supposed it bound to its own organs as taste is bound to the mouth, vision to the eye. This feeling haunts and inhabits me, like a sickness. It covers me, like skin.
Other Opinions:
Valentina’s Room
books i done read
Fluttering Butterflies
Farm Lane Book Blog
Jenny’s Books
Trish's Reading Nook

(Please let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Oh wow! I guess I've to move this book up my TBR list... it has been sitting on my shelf for what seems like ages! LOL. (And I think I know why I haven't got around to reading it in the first place - because of its size!) :P

  2. Can't wait to read this now, as I bought it the other week on Michelle' recommendation over at Fluttering Butterflies. I also picked up Sarah Waters Affinity too. I will have to read it sooner rather than later now.

  3. Nymeth, you have done absolute justice to this book. You have completely sold it to me. I have to fidn this one.

  4. Between you and Amber, I'm now interested in reading something by Sarah Waters. I'm not sure which I'll pick yet, but I will probably read something by her soon.

  5. I agree, an amazing book and so hard to review without giving anything away. You did a good job though. I don't think I've ever read such a book where I had no idea what was really going on until the very end. And for me it was the squalor in which the main character first lived that shocked me. It was portayed so brilliantly by Waters. I must read more of her books - I have several on my tbr mountain.

  6. I am dying to read this! I just don't know when I'll be able to fit it in. Maybe I'll have to adjust my plan this summer. . .


  7. This is a book that has sat on my mother's bookshelf for years but I don't think she has ever read it, or surely she woudl have told me about it! I also missed the adaptation on the BBC, so apart from knowing about the theme of sexuality, I know next to nothing about this book. And that certainly needs to be rectified!

    Thanks Nymeth. Wonderful review, even if you couldn't share more.

  8. Sigh. Now I've got to add this one to my great big list of Stuff I Want To Reread Right Now. It's such a brilliant book.

  9. Yay, I'm so glad you loved it!

    And to your readers who might be thinking of watching the BBC adaptation first...DON'T!!!!
    It's been filmed in such a way that in my opinion spoils a big part of the first twist. So read the book first, please:) That way you'll also have the pleasure to imagine the protagonists' faces instead of thinking about the two actresses.

    That's it. Sorry for hijacking your comments, but it had to be done!:P

  10. OK you have definitely got me interested. No fair that it took Ali Smith's sex scene crown away, but it did make me want to read it more as hers had such an impact on me. Will keep an eye out for this one next year when I have money again!

  11. How can I not go to a bookstore right this second and buy this still today? ;-)

  12. I loved this book too - are you going to rush out and buy her new book at the end of April? I am!

  13. That's it. On the list it goes. :) I have a friend who told me about Sarah Waters many years ago, and I didn't listen. Now the blogosphere is screaming at me, "Read this now!" Okay, already!

  14. Man, you are really making me want to read this again! Maybe I can just watch the mini-series again. Did you know that the BBC did a mini-series of it a few years ago?
    I'm so glad you loved it, she really is a fantastic writer. I've only read her 3 Victorian novels, Fingersmith is my favourite but they were all very good, but I really must correct that this year.

  15. I had a similar reaction to this one. It's just stunning. I also really enjoyed The Night Watch, but it wasn't quite on par with Fingersmith. I have Affinity waiting, too!

  16. Alright, alright, I'll read it :P

  17. You know how you very occasionally read a review and find yourself literally physically craving the experience of reading the book? Yep, that's what you just did to me.

  18. Trying to comment without spoiling anything either (so hard!)

    I liked the ending of Fingersmith - it was satisfying. I will ask you later how you liked the ending compared to the other Sarah Waters.

    That said, do catch the TV series if you can. I have the DVDs at home. I became a fan of Elaine Cassidy (who plays Maud in the TV series) after that.

    Never has the taking off of gloves been so erotic!

  19. I'm putting this on my wishlist RIGHT NOW. Sounds amazing and I had to laugh at your little asides about not being able to say anymore. Kind of reminds me a bit of how I felt with The Thirteenth Tale. I can't remember if I knew there was a twist or not (well, I knew once I started reading), but I was kept clueless right until the very end. Love that!

    You may not have been able to do the book justice (which I would argue against), but you definitely sold me!

  20. I read it. It was certainly intriguing, and lots of things took me by surprise- but there's one reason I didn't like it- and that's mainly the lesbian scenes. I guess I'm a bit of a prude, but reading that made me uncomfortable.

  21. So you kept twittering about this one and I knew I was going to want it right away after your reviewed it...didn't know I'd want it this bad though!! It sounds so damn good!

  22. ooh la la, this sarah waters is really making waves! i definitely have to give her a look.

    and i know what you mean about giving stuff away about books - even telling someone theres a twist. that really annoys me! i've often had twists spoiled because i knew there was one and picked it up because i was tipped off to look for one.

    or, whats almost worse, is that i've been so distracted by this knowledge of a twist that i was sort not trusting what i was reading (and half looking out for it) that it limited how much i immersed myself in it.

    and yet, without knowledge of a twist some books have almost nothing to recommend them! so what does one do!?

    and, many twists are in fact parts of the premise... so, sometimes i guess its okay, but it certainly can be harmful.

    don't worry, with your review you've definitely managed to whet my appetite even though you didn't tell much. and - you haven't given key things away which is brilliant! :D

  23. Wondeful review! I just had to comment, though, since I am apparently one of those few people who didn't really care for the book. It's been a few years since I've read it (and it was pre-blog so I don't have my own review to fall back on), but I remember thinking that it was - to me, at least - contrived and predictable, and sensationalist for the sake of sensationalism. That said, she did set a wonderful scene even if I didn't enjoy the book overall. I'm really very glad you enjoyed it :) (Oh - I have never seen the BBC adaptation either.)

  24. Yes, it's a fantastic book...because so much of it is unexpected. I have Tipping the Velvet in the TBR pile. Have you read Slammerkin? I'd recommend it to fans of Fingersmith.

  25. You're making me want to read it again! Sarah Waters' writing is really beautiful and vivid. She has this trick of conveying layers of meaning with just a few words - remarkable.

  26. I've loved Affinity and Tipping the Velvet but I feel like I've been saving this one! I know, it makes no sense but really one of these days I will read it. I'm sure I won't be disappointed! So glad you liked it and thank you for such a great review without spoilers - I know that's so hard isn't it especially with a good book you want to talk about! :)

  27. Fingersmith sounds really REALLY interesting. I just added it to my tbr. (can you tell I love vague 'I-can't-tell-you-more' kinds of reviews!?)

  28. Melody: Trust me, it doesn't feel like a chunkster at all. Happy reading :D You know, I envy you. I wish I could read it for the first time again.

    Scrap Girl: I suspect I'll be getting myself a copy of Affinity very, very soon.

    Violet: yay! I'm glad to have got you interested.

    Amanda: I look forward to your thoughts on whichever one you read!

    Cath: Yes, she portrayed the squalor so well. The atmosphere was just perfect.

    Lezlie: It's worth making time for, you'll see!

    Mariel: It does indeed! I can't wait to see what you think of it.

    Memory: Isn't it? And reading it again, knowing the whole story and paying attention to the details, should be quite an experience.

    Valentina: You're welcome to hijack any time :D I appreciate the advice!

    Rhinoa: The sex scenes are different, and both very good, but I think I liked this one even better! If you don't get to this one this year, you can bet it will be on our next challenge list :P

    Joanna: that makes me happy :D

    Jackie: I still have the others to read, but I definitely want it too!

    Priscilla: I didn't listen before either, but now I really wish I had!

    tanabata: Now that I've read it I really want to watch the mini-series. And yes, she is absolutely fantastic. Somehow I wasn't expecting it.

    Meghan: I think Affinity will be my next. It's calling my name!

  29. Ok! Fine. I will read this, very soon. Maybe I can hold out until fall, since it seems like a good autumn read and I've been tearing through the Victorial ghostly thrillers lately... I loved Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, and I'm sure I'll love this as well... (PS: Tipping the Velvet is out on miniseries DVD, it's fun to watch too)

  30. I've seen this book around but I don't think I ever really knew all that much about what it was about. Well, I'm glad I know now! That was a great review - even with all the stuff you had to leave out. This is definitely going on my "must read this year" list.

    P.S. I think I remember that this book is modeled somewhat on Wilkie Collins' "Woman in White." Did you see any similarities or am I getting it confused with something else?

  31. Lena: Good :P

    Debi: I know indeed :D

    Dark Orpheus: Oh, the gloves! It was perfect. The details were all perfect. And I liked the ending too...what I was hoping would happen happened.

    Trish: This actually has a Gothic mood similar to The Thirteenth Tale, only ten times better! (And you know I liked The Thirteenth Tale a lot.) I'm glad I got you interested in reading it...it's such an amazing book.

    Jeane: I know not everyone is comfortable with explicit sex scenes in books. I'm not sure how explicit I found this one, but then again that's also subjective! For me, it was certainly more detailed than Ali Smith, but less out there than, say, Anne Rice.

    Chris: I think you'll love it! Save it for RIP if you can...it's perfect for that!

    JP: It was so hard to decide what I could and couldn't say! But I'm glad to have got you interested.

    Kate: Predictable! I'm really not smart enough to ever have guessed, not in a million years. But now I want to edit out the "you'll never guess!" bit, because of course there are lots of people out there who are much smarter than I am and would easily guess :P

    Softdrink: I haven't, no. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Jenny: I couldn't agree more. The writing blew me away.

    Iliana: I'm so looking forward to those two! She's amazing.

    Care: hehe, I can tell indeed. This is pretty much as awesome as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though in totally different ways.

    Miss D: I decided that I'll read Affinity, then Tipping the Velvet, then enjoy the mini-series. This would indeed be a perfect autumn read!

    J.S. Peyton: It might be, but I haven't read The Woman in White yet (I know, I know..but I absolutely WILL this year), so I can't tell!

  32. excellent review. now I want to read it to see what that 'twist' is all about :)

  33. GREAT review. Definitely want to know what the big twist is!

  34. I really have been meaning to read Sarah Waters for years. One of these days!

  35. Nymeth, you certainly have a way of sparking a person's interest, don't you? lol. Your review certainly has me intrigued.

  36. Nymeth! I didn't mean it that way! That's just my opinion! I don't know...maybe I should lean more towards "contrived" rather than "predictable," but one way or another I didn't find anything surprising - and that's getting more and more disappointing to me since apparently there are a lot of folks out there who did. I wish I could have enjoyed it as much as everyone else did!

  37. To reply to J.S. Peyton's comment, Yes, Fingersmith is partly modeled on The Woman in White and Victorian sensation fiction in general. Nymeth, you really should read it! :)

  38. Wow, what a fantastic review! This book really never caught my attention before - now I'm feeling like I need to add it to my list...

  39. Terrific review, Nymeth! I've been wanting to read something by Sarah Waters and noticed recently that I've been collecting her books--just not reading them. Must change that.

  40. Oooh, OK! Will do! I'll save it for RIP...it reminds me of Dickens in it's description for some reason...is it anything like his stuff? If so I know I'll love it!

  41. yay! I just recently bought this for the 1% well read challenge and I'm really looking forward to having the chance to read it! I mean how could I not after this and the many other wonderful glowing reviews I've read?

  42. Naida and Marie: Glad to have made you curious!

    Marg: For some reason I had no great desire to read her before...I got this one because it was a Lambda winner. Little did I know!

    Dar: That was my goal, so I'm glad to have succeeded :P

    Kate: I know, I know, I was kidding :P I'm normally hopeless at guessing plot twists, though, so it's really easy for me to be caught off guard. Also, there's probably a pattern to these things, so maybe the more mysteries and books with twists you read, the less likely it becomes you'll be surprised. I agree with you about the plot being on the sensationalist side, though. But for me, that added to the fun. I love me some Victorian drama :P

    tanabata: I will, I really will! It's on my list for the classics challenge, actually.

    Heather: you do! You totally do.

    Literary Feline: I plan to start collecting them from now on. And reading them, of course :P

    Chris: I'd be able to tell you if I weren't so ignorant of Dickens other than A Christmas Carol and random short stories :P But it definitely has a Victorian classic flavour.

    Amy: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  43. Oh people keep recommending this book to me. I'm going to HAVE to pick it up now. I love your review!

  44. I'm so glad you liked it. I adored this book and the twist - I did not see that coming.

    I loved your review I think you captured the heart of the book perfectly without giving anything away :)

    BTW I've reviewed Saving Francesca if your interested :)

  45. I've heard nothing but good things about this book. Love the title. I'll have to add it to my list to keep an eye out for as I certainly sounds like a book that is well worth devouring, especially if the story continues to surprise up to the very last page.

  46. One of the top 5 plot twists EVER, I think - seriously, I know I gasped out loud. You've just made me want to read this again.

  47. I have this on my TBR pile shelf! I just picked it up last year. I Must read it, this year! your review is fabulous and I don't know if I can wait until RIP3!!!! (or 4, whatever number it will be).

  48. Wow! Well that's certainly a way to get readers to pick up a book. From what you revealed it does sound neat :)

  49. This is definitely going to be a must-read this year!!

  50. I really want to read this! I have it on my TBR pile, so I will have to try and work it in this year!

  51. I read this a couple of years ago and was just blown away. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and that twist was spectacular! I am so glad to come across this review, you did a great job with it. Now I think I want to read it again...

  52. I have this urge to reread this book. (I've just noticed you've linked to me, thanks for that!) I adored this book. I have Tipping the Velvet waiting for me and I have this eager anticipation for it but I'm holding out. What is it about Sarah Waters? She's amazing. (I couldn't believe how hot the sex scenes were, good lord!)

  53. Amanda, thanks! I hope you enjoy the book.

    Alexa: Thank you! I so want to read Saving Francesca. And Jellicoe Road.

    Carl: It's a great title, isn't it? You should totally read this for the next RIP! The atmosphere is so perfect.

    Elizabeth: I think I don't read enough books with twists. This makes my top 5 for sure, but the trouble is that I can't think of what the other 4 would be :P Maybe one would be Prisoner of Azkaban. What are yours?

    Susan; Yes, yes you must! And lol, I think it's 4 :P

    Ladytink: Mission accomplished :P

    Staci: Good to know :D

    Kailana: I bet you'd read it in like a day. It's long, but impossible to put down.

    Zibilee: It has become one of mine too. And thank you so much!

    Michelle: You're welcome! I want to re-read it too, because now I'll see part 1 in a whole different light. I had to resist the urge to re-read that part as soon as I finished the book. And they were indeed!

  54. Gah, every time I read a review of this book, all I can think is: WANT!

  55. I've had this for years and I think I started on it but never had the time to really focus considering that I had it when I was way too busy reading books. Eh, that didn't sound right. Hopefully I can pick it up sometime late this year.

  56. Great interview with Sarah Waters at http://www.wbqonline.com/feature.do?featureid=354

    Well worth reading if you're a fan of her work

  57. I just read your review of Affinity, as I just finished it, and then I had to come see what you had to say about Fingersmith. Gosh- this one is on my shelf, too! I am glad I will be reading it after Affinity, as I thought Affinity was really tightly-written. What a wonderful review (as always). Thanks for nudging me to pick Sarah Waters up!

  58. Loved this one. I added a link to your review on mine.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.