Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

20 Books of Summer 2018: Book 2
Finally—I can say good things about a book by Sarah Waters! She’s the best writer whose books I don’t love (see The Paying Guests, see also: The Little Stranger).

In Fingersmith, Sue Trinder is brought to the estate of Maud Lilly to trick her out of an inheritance. The plot’s mastermind is Gentleman, a charismatic thief, who has an in with Maud’s uncle. Gentleman needs Sue to pose as Maud’s maid and look the other way when chaperoning their painting lessons. There’s a dark angle though:

“And there’s something else,” [Gentleman] said, “that I shall need Sue’s help with. Once I have married this girl, I shan’t want her about me. I know a man who will take her off my hands. He has a house, where he’ll keep her. It’s a madhouse. He’ll keep her close. So close, perhaps…” He did not finish, but turned the card face down, and kept his fingers on its back. “I must only marry her,” he said, “and—as Johnny would say—I must jiggle her, once, for the sake of the cash. Then I’ll take her, unsuspecting, to the madhouse gates. Where’s the harm? Haven’t I said, she’s half-simple already? But I want to be sure. I shall need Sue by her to keep her simple; and to persuade her, in her simpleness, into the plot.” (28-29)

Fingersmith is set in the mid-1800s and full of Victorian sensibility and style. It contains enough literary and historical heft that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002. It’s more entertaining than most of the winners, though, which leads me to believe that it lost for being too readable, too hard to put down.

It’s a tricky book to review because it almost feels like it’s two books in one volume (and not just because it’s 600 pages). Page 184 contains an epic twist that simultaneously makes the book brilliant and slows the action to a crawl. The first 184 pages are an easy read, but the pace flags when the twist is followed with a flashback that spends time in some very dark territory. Many things could have been left to the imagination, but Waters is all about the tiny details. Once the reader makes it though a long section of a character’s disturbing childhood, they’re shown the hellish interior of an old-timey madhouse.

The first time I read Fingersmith, I read both of these sections quickly but closely. This time, I skimmed the particularly distressing scenes in the madhouse. Waters wants to portray a nasty, gritty version of London and some details are stomach-turning. It’s hard to say whether these sections go on too long—they certainly felt too long, but I wonder how much of this was because I was rereading the book and already knew the key information. It’s a lot of ugliness to wade through for known plot points.

While Waters’s eye for detail overstretches the middle section, she gets back on track for the ending. The supporting cast becomes three-dimensional before it’s all over, which is much appreciated. One of my biggest pet peeves is when an overly-detailed writer can’t get round to detailing things I care about: character motivations and plot. As brutal as the middle of the book is, the overall arc is a warm and affecting love story.

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5). For once, Waters’s lovely prose is narrating a story I can invest in. There’s more direction here than in her other novels and the ending has a definite payoff.


  1. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
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Currently Reading (this section has expanded a bit)

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Need to Read

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  6. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  7. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  8. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  9. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  10. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  11. While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
  12. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

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