I enjoyed [b:Tipping the Velvet|56373|Tipping the Velvet|Sarah Waters|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309286660s/56373.jpg|1013794], and so was excited to read this book, reputed to be the author’s best. Fingersmith is a fun read, with a gripping plot and well-developed characters. It’s also darker than Tipping the Velvet, in a fairly lurid way (I’m not talking about the sex, of which there isn’t much), and the plot doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Fingersmith is one of those books you won’t want to read too many reviews about before diving in, lest they spoil the surprises that are half the fun. It begins with a young thief, Sue, who joins a plot to swindle an heiress out of her fortune. This being a Sarah Waters book, attraction develops between Sue and the heiress and.... you’ll have to read it to find out the rest! The book had me staying up much later than I’d intended to find out what happens next, which had not happened to me for awhile. Certainly a lot of fun.
The plot is also the source of some problems, however. The first big twist set very high expectations, which the rest of the story failed to meet, and the rationale behind that twist doesn’t make much logical sense, as it’s hard to see how that course of events would benefit anyone. There's really no reason for Sue to be put in the asylum "in Maud's place"--the only reason Maud was going to go there was so Gentleman wouldn't have to put up with her. Clearly, he decided he could put up with her (perhaps prematurely), and Sue didn't pose a danger to anyone, having only gotten involved for Mrs. Sucksby's sake anyway. Maud seemed to think she needed a decoy, but it's unclear why; if the uncle had cared enough to seek her out he would have quickly discovered that Sue was not Maud and gone on to look for Maud at the same starting point as if there were no Sue.
There are also a few other problems of the “why doesn’t she just....?” variety. Back to the asylum, Sue's "insanity" was based on denying that she was Maud, so why didn't she just "remember" her identity and announce that she'd been cured? There was some indication that maybe Gentleman would've had to sign her out, but still this seemed like a good strategy to me, and much better than just endlessly protesting that she's totally sane, and it's all a conspiracy, you've gotta believe her!
Meanwhile, some of the problems with which Waters torments her heroines are just so absurd that I couldn’t even feel bad for them (and I wanted to! I had a soft spot for these crazy girls. Especially Maud, who seriously needs a therapist). To be fair, Tipping the Velvet has its over-the-top elements as well and I suspect that for many of Waters’s fans this is a feature not a bug; Fingersmith has been called “Dickensian,” and Dickens was no stranger to melodrama (I say this as someone who mostly likes Dickens). Finally, while the slow pacing and attention to detail work well at the beginning to develop the setting and characters, later in the book this drags the plot down, leaving too few pages for the rushed resolution. I mean, c'mon, I liked these two together but their history was a really terrible basis for a relationship. If they were going to get together I wanted more than 5 pages to see how that was going to work. I'm also unconvinced that Maud's commercializing her sexuality through writing porn was at all empowering, but that may have been intentional. Since her mental health was never great.
All that said, the book still has a lot going for it. The writing style is fluid and Waters does a great job with atmosphere and period detail. The book explores the seamy underbelly of Victorian society, from abusive asylums where inconvenient women could be locked away for years, to the sale of pornography (yep, the Victorians were hypocrites). The character development, particularly of the two protagonists, is very good, and Waters uses the dual first person narration to great effect. You really get a sense of how the narrators think differently, in subtle ways, and revisiting some of the same events with a different set of eyes is occasionally humorous and consistently fascinating. Sue's complete failure to fake the lady's maid role convincingly was both adorable and hilarious. I had been wondering how she could possibly pull it off with like 3 days' preparation. After all, this is England, and aren't the English supposed to be able to tell your exact position in society and the occupations of both of your parents based solely on your accent?
On a couple of occasions I wanted to say “But that isn’t how it happened!” only to realize.... wait a minute.... everyone is unreliable, and everyone tends to view events in the light most favorable to themselves. In general I’m skeptical of authors trying to write multiple narrators, but if you want to see it done right, read this book.
Overall then, a compelling and well-written story, as long as you don’t mind some plot contrivances. This is really 3.5 stars, but I’m rounding up to 4 because I had a lot of fun with it, and because the author does a great job with character and point-of-view. I would recommend this to those who their historical fiction closer to the literary end of the spectrum, but there’s enough plot to satisfy those who typically avoid literary books as well.