Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Fingersmith

I feel as though I've been living in a cave.  Sarah Waters has been publishing neo-Victorian and early/mid 20th century novels since 1998, yet I learned about her only a year ago.  More is the pity, because her writing style is so compulsively readable, at least going by her third novel, Fingersmith (2002).

As with Crimson Petal and the White and The Seance, I read with one eye toward seeing (1) what aspects of the Victorian Era were incorporated, (2) what "modern" elements were added, (3) what worked and did not work, (4) how well Fingersmith conformed to expectations of "what would sell," and (5) whether it was a good story.

Starting with No. 2, one common aspect of Sarah Waters's novels is that their protagonists are lesbians.  Not all, but at least the first three, including Fingersmith.  Waters was working toward a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, with a thesis focused on "lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present," when she came up with the idea for her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998).  The material for her thesis would inspire several of her novels.  Whereas other neo-Victorian authors might send their lesbian protagonists out into the woods, where they could be free of social disapproval, Waters based her novels in the heart of London.  Her intent was, in some respects, to correct misunderstandings about Victorian mores and aspects of society considered purely heterosexual.  Though at first publishers rejected Tipping the Velvet, it was eventually picked up and received both critical acclaim and commercial success.  Therefore, by the time Waters published Fingersmith, she already had a good idea that her work would sell.

As for why I chose to read Fingersmith over Tipping the Velvet, the story just appealed to me more.  But was it a good story?  For the most part, yes.  Like Crimson Petal and the White, some aspects left me very frustrated, so that I consider Fingersmith a very good novel rather than a great one.  In short, I adored the first third, but was unable to suspend my disbelief regarding the twists in the next two parts.


Plot Synopsis

From this point onward, I will assume that you have read this book, and this review will be filled with spoilers.  

In early 1860s London, 17-year old Sue Trinder lives in a "den of thieves" under the protective eye of mother figure and baby farmer, Mrs. Suksby.  Sue is a "fingersmith" whose mother, she was told, died from hanging after a theft gone wrong.  One day, a rakish associate known as "Gentleman" shows up, with a proposal that could potentially make Sue very well off.  He proposes that Sue serve as a lady's maid to Miss Maud Lilly, niece of an eccentric gentleman who lives in an isolated manor house, whom Gentleman has been assisting.  Gentleman intends to make the "odd" Miss Lilly fall in love and elope with him so he can claim her 15,000-pound fortune.  Then, with help from Sue, he will deposit her in the mad house.

Sue agrees to the plot, but from the moment she arrives at the manor house, nothing goes as she imagines.  Among other things, she does not expect to have feelings for Miss Lilly, and vice versa.


The Good Aspects of This Novel

Writing Style.  I really liked Waters's way of writing, the way she doesn't need to fuss over every detail of description, yet provides very vivid descriptions when the scene calls for it.  On the one hand, we never know quite what Gentleman looks like, other than that he's "handsome."  On the other hand, we know exactly what Maud's manor house prison looks like, including the library her uncle inhabits with his ink-blackened tongue and green spectacles.  I think it's because Waters understands that what Gentleman looks like is not essential to the story.  He's handsome and charming -- what more do you need?  On the other hand, it is very important that we feel the mouldy claustrophobia of the Briar so we understand not only why Maud chooses to escape it, but also the events that preceded Maud and Sue's births.

Waters's characters have a plain speaking style, yet the story is constantly leaking new details that keep it intriguing.  Except for some stretches (see below), she also knows how to keep the story moving.  Most scenes advance both plot and character (though in some respects, character development is a bit of a chimera), which makes Fingersmith something of an anti-Crimson Petal and the White.  Faber could not resist showing the same scenes again and again, lingering on what each character was wearing and details of the room.

Interesting Places.  Fingersmith has no shortage of interesting places that manage to be more than simply an homage to Dickens.  There is Mrs. Suksby's den on Lane Street in London, where dog-skinners, con artists, and "fingersmiths" congregate, while dozens of orphaned babies live upstairs, their cries dulled by gin water.  Then there is the Briar, which somehow makes quiet country life seem like a horror story, and the true horror story of the asylum where Sue remains locked up for months at a time.  Even spots that should be fairly nondescript, like the cottage where Maud and Gentleman spend their first married night, carry foreboding.        

Rupert Evans as Gentleman in the BBC version.
Looks much younger than I pictured him...
Character Development (to An Extent).  For the most part, I liked the characters, though not as well as I'd hoped (see below).  The one I liked best, mainly for her consistency, was Sue.  She is brusque, yet soft; uneducated, yet astute; shrewd, yet innocent.  I liked her realistic responses to the changes in her life.  Even though she is supposedly a hardened street girl, she is still afraid of leaving home and homesick.  The development of her love for Maud is delicately done, as is Maud's reaction to her feelings.  And Maud... I really liked Part One Maud.  I loved her nervousness, her seeming naivete, the way she wore her white gloves like armor.  I was intrigued by her nightmares, the way she kissed her mother's portrait each night, the way she seemed to yearn for someone to love her, and her slow awakening to Sue's passion.  I mourn for Part One Maud.  Had she been that way throughout the book, she might have been my favorite character.  Otherwise, despite the fact that Maud narrates roughly half of Fingersmith, Sue feels like the main character.

The other characters are interesting, if a bit two-dimensional, especially Gentleman and Mrs. Suksby, who knows more than she lets on.  Much more.    


The Less Good Aspects of This Novel

Twists That Don't Make Sense.  That really is my main gripe with Fingersmith.  While yes, they keep you reading, they also take away from what made the book so good in the first place.  And the first third was so, so good.  I liked Sue's past with the dead mother who was hanged for murder.  I liked how Maud was quirky and clearly suffered from OCD, but was also kind and sensitive.  I liked the unexpected friendship, then love, that bloomed between Maud and Sue.  By the end of Part One, I was convinced that Sue would smuggle Maud away from the asylum and the rest of the book would be their adventures together as two unmarried women in love, trying to forge a life in 1860s England while staying one step ahead of (now vengeful) Gentleman.  But maybe that would have been too much of a stretch even for Sarah Waters.

So instead, at the end of Part One, we learn that Maud is, well, not Maud.  In Parts Two and Three, we discover that very little of what we knew about Maud Lilly is real.  She's not really naive about sex.  In fact, she knows more about it than Sue.  She's not naive about the marriage plot -- she helped hatch it with Gentleman.  The reveal is an interesting plot element, but it comes at the expense of character.  The Maud Lilly of Parts Two and Three is flatter than the Maud Lilly of Part One.  Flatter, and possibly too modern.  (Would an unmarried girl of good breeding so casually refer to Gentleman as "Richard"?)  We know her unusual background, her resentments, her penchant for abuse, but Waters cannot get inside her mind quite as easily as she does Sue's.  Therefore Maud of Parts Two and Three feels like the antithesis of Maud of Part One, but not much more.

Maud and Sue share a bed at night due to Maud's nightmares.
Or should I say supposed nightmares?
Other twists follow, each more absurd than the last.  It's not enough for Maud Lilly, gentleman's niece, to conspire with Gentleman to leave her rural prison.  Nor is it enough for her to simply be a fraud.  No, she must be Mrs. Suksby's real daughter, purposely switched with the true Miss Lilly -- Sue!

The backstory behind this twist is shaky, but I could buy it if it didn't render other aspects of the novel more ridiculous.  Specifically, why was Sue ever involved in Maud's plot of escape?  Did Maud really need a lady's maid to help her sneak away on Gentleman's boat?  Why were Maud and Gentleman so confident they could keep Sue locked away in the asylum without Mr. Lilly or his household staff ever checking on "Maud"?  And why would Mrs. Suksby be so quick to toss aside the girl who was basically her daughter for 17 years and replace her with a virtual stranger?

After a while, the plot seems to strain under its own weight.  While the reading is rarely dull, it is also not satisfying.  I wanted a character that I could hold onto as an anchor in the constantly shifting waters.  The only one who seems to maintain her inner core is Sue, which was why she was the only character I truly liked.                        

Redundancy.  Even in a novel with as many twists as Fingersmith, there are stretches that are slow and redundant.  The worst is the first half of Part Two, which recounts the events of Part One from Maud's perspective.  While it provides for some amusement -- revealing that Maud's seeming oddness was really discomfort at deceiving Sue -- it easily could have been reduced to a few paragraphs.  Sue's time in the asylum, likewise, is interesting, but much too long.  

Cliches.  Sometimes it feels like Waters doesn't trust the characters to hold our interest by themselves.  Instead of letting us empathize with Maud simply for being a young Victorian girl trapped under the thumb of her crazy uncle, she has to include the shocking! twist that Maud is also forced to read passages from porn literature to eager gentlemen visitors.  How edgy.  How modern.  Yawn.


Conclusion

All in all, while I didn't love Fingersmith, I liked it a great deal.  Enough that I sucked down the 580-page book in a little over two days, and vowed to read more of the Sarah Waters canon.  Enough that I decided to make my next read a Dickens novel.  Dickens!  A bit of background: Dickens is the Victorian author whose writing I could never tolerate.  Many times I picked up one of his overwrought tomes and tried to read beyond the first page, but failed.  Yet if Michel Faber and Sarah Waters love him so much that their novels contain obvious homages, maybe I should give him a chance?  So my next read will be Bleak House.  If you don't hear from me in three weeks, send help.

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