Here is me reading this book:
Part 1: Yes!
Part 2: Whaaaa?
Part 3: Um, okay.
Be warned: there be spoilers below. This book has a very clear and traditional structure, so once you recognize its contours there aren't many surprises, but my review gives away a lot.
Tipping the Velvet seems to have a reputation as some kind of lesbian erotica. (That got your attention, didn't it?) The cover features a pair of strippers*, the blurb praises the book as "erotic," and even the title, as it turns out, is a Victorian euphemism for a sex act. I've got to think this is mostly about marketing, because there are no strippers in the book, and while there are a few fairly explicit sex scenes, it's not so far out of the norm for adult fiction.
*I actually read the stripperiffic edition, although I've shelved a different one.
So, what is this book actually about? Coming of age, with an emphasis on relationships. Nancy, our narrator, begins the story as a typical 18-year-old girl living on the Kentish coast in the 1880s. But her life is turned upside-down when she falls hard for a cross-dressing music hall singer, and the story follows her for the next several years until she finally discovers what she wants from life and love.
So here is the part where I talk about plot details. Part 1 is great; I was very quickly drawn into Nancy's life and the intensity of her first love. The story is fun and exciting and Nancy is easy to relate to. Then, inevitably, things go sour, and Nancy runs away from her former life, to emerge as a "male" prostitute. Suddenly she's gorgeous and frivolous and lazy, bearing little resemblance to the person she was in Part 1. Part 2 seems deliberately over-the-top, with Nancy's choices representing the way people might feel (rather than actually behave) after their first nasty breakup. It's entertaining, with lots of sex and crossdressing, but mostly left me confused.
Then comes Part 3, in which Nancy of course finds true love. I liked this better than Part 2, and Nancy starts to make some sense again, but it doesn't quite come together. There's little reason for the two characters to be together beyond physical attraction and proximity, and too much character development is put off till the final pages, with the curtain closing on a flurry of epiphanies.
Even for a coming-of-age story, Nancy is quite the chameleon, so while she's interesting to read about, her personality is elusive. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is well-drawn and interesting. This is one of those books that shows a whole cross-section of society, and it depicts life in Victorian London in great detail, bringing the setting alive in all of its sights, sounds and smells. The book wears its research lightly: grounded in the historical period and fascinating in its detail, but without the research getting in the way of Nancy's adventures.
The panorama of lesbian life at the time (from rich ladies' clubs to the working-class women who gather in the basement of a pub) is especially intriguing, and I appreciate that, unlike much of the fiction I've encountered featuring LGBT characters, the story never turns into a tale of persecution and discrimination. Certainly those tales should be told, and Waters doesn't lose sight of the fact that Victorian England was hardly a paradise of equality. But it's nice to read a different kind of story, and one that focuses on the protagonist's own choices and growth rather than other people acting on her.
Overall, a fairly good book. The writing is noticeably better than average, although I wouldn't quite call it literary, the historical background is excellent and the characterization good. The story doesn't live up to the expectations the first 100 or so pages created, which is why I give 3.5 stars. But it is still worth a read.