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Fingersmith
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168 of 174 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Sarah Waters' third novel begins simply enough. Sue Trinder is a teenage orphan who lives amongst a group of confidence men, thieves, baby farmers and fingersmiths (a 19th-century term for a pickpockets). An unscrupulous man commonly and ironically known as Gentleman compels Sue to join in his plot to win the heart of an elderly bookish man's niece named Maud. Maud is heiress to a fortune, but she can only claim it if she marries. The plan is: win the lady, ditch the wife in an insane asylum and split the fortune. Sue becomes Maud's maid and when the plot is reaching its timely conclusion is the exact point where it is fractured and split like a forest path into numerous twisting paths revealing long held secrets and hidden strife. Sue and Maud are made to endure separate trials in their journey including the incarceration in a mad house, the subjection of reading and transcribing appalling pornography to a perverted old man and a dangerous journey through treacherous London in search of a friend in order for them to discover what their true pasts consist of and what predestined traits may tweak their futures.
It is fitting that at the beginning of this novel a reference is made to Dickens' Oliver Twist. Fingersmith is a novel descended from Dickens voluminous library as well as much 19th century sensualist fiction. Waters skilled use of language to evoke characters and a sense of place through physical detail and psychological mapping of experience is a distinct characteristic of this descent. She also has a tremendous ability to use fabulous names such as (Mrs Sucksby and Miss Bacon) as Dickens did to mark poignant traits of her characters. Where Waters veers from Dickens is in her conjuring of robust female characters who can dominate the novel, not through the circumstances of their plight and their representation of certain social injustice, but through the powerful voice they use to assert their individual positions. Of course the great descriptions and plotting Waters uses to conjure this tale of a 19th century English plot to capture a family fortune makes a great many statements about the ways in which women were marginalised and the bizarre social positions they were forced to inhabit. However, the great strength of her brilliant protagonists Sue and Maud is in the way their actions are guided more by their impulsive desire to survive rather than to spur the trim, thrilling plot or subscribe to any societal roles presented to them. Their struggles led by these natures produces a longing for a happy resolution built not out of sentimentally contrived conventions, but a deserved reward for revealing to us their faulty human natures.
Sue and Maud are not angels. They both deceive and betray each other, but they discover in this Darwinian world a rare affection for each other and a chance to share confidence when one's closest family is apt to betray you. The curious mirroring effect Waters uses with them, mixing pasts and characteristics of them, is descended from a more recent literary genius, Angela Carter. There are elements of her ideas (particularly realised in her novel Wise Children) on the way identity can be splintered, performed and reimagined which correspond to the ways Susan and Maud's fates are intertwined. Their relationship is drawn out as a struggle to express their mutual love and define their suppressed lesbian desires. But this is also presented as an arduous task to realise the aspects which make them powerful individuals. This novel makes the remote past enticingly familiar and relates a harrowing story that makes you wish it to continue on and on.
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83 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
After reading and enjoying Sarah Waters's previous novels, I knew Fingersmith would meet my expectations. However, I had no idea! Fingersmith, as usual, had the gorgeous, atmospheric qualities that I think is Sarah Waters's trademark. And of course, the writing is simply genius. But more than that, Fingersmith is fantastic -- this novel told a darn good story.
Set again in 19th century London, Fingersmith begins with Sue Trinder's tale as an orphan and a thief. She lives in a house filled with other orphaned babies and an assortment of pickpockets, or "fingersmiths," along with the lady of the house, Mrs. Sucksby, who took care of Sue since she was an infant. Now 17, Sue's opportunity to show her appreciation to Mrs. Sucksby finally comes -- in the form of Gentleman, a seedy con man and friend of the household. Gentleman is armed with a plan to make them all rich and enlists Sue as his helper. But things aren't always what they seem, and as the plan unfolds, all sorts of secrets and twists come unraveled.
Fingersmith is everything I had hoped it would be -- beautiful writing, a stunning cast of characters, and a riveting, compelling storyline. I was helplessly drawn into the slums of London as well as the drab, solemn English countryside where Sue and Gentleman spend their days spinning their treacherous web. I will admit that there weren't as many shocking surprises (for me, anyway) like Affinity, but this novel was much like Tipping the Velvet in how it pulls in the reader from the beginning with a rousing good story. I can't enough good things about Sarah Waters, her novels, and her talent. She's exceptional, and Fingersmith is nothing less than stellar.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
Sarah Waters' third novel "Fingersmith" is both a critical and popular favourite. It has been shortlisted for several book awards including the Booker Prize. Waters herself has attracted much attention from literary circles since the publication of her first two novels "Tipping The Velvet" and "Affinity", both of which have won her many accolades. The former has even been made into a TV movie by the BBC. So what's the fuss about ? I'd say it's down to the fact that Waters has created a niche for herself writing fiction the way the old masters used to. Her style cannot be further away from the rabid excesses of many contemporary writers who try to pass off bad for inventive writing. Waters' eloquent and long flowing sentences recall the style of classical writers like Charles Dickens. Her craft lies in pure storytelling - about petty criminals, thiefs, pickpockets, damsels in distress, etc all in a Victorian setting - but with a strong dash of the new feminist sensibility that brings her story bang up-to-date.....and it works !
"Fingersmith" at more than 500 pages long may be overwritten but it is superbly crafted and a truly compelling read. Sure, there's drama, mystery, suspense and great characterisation but it isn't the fearsome mindbender the blurbs make it out to be. After you have recovered from the jaw dropping shock that Waters has laid in store for you at the close of the first segment, the other twists and turns that ensue aren't that difficult to follow. In fact, they're fairly predictable but that's a compliment, not a criticism, because it shows Waters cares more about her story's integrity than delivering cheap shocks. By the time you get to the end of it, our heroines, Sue and Maud, must seem like two peas in a pod or spiritual twins from opposite sides of the track. While Waters has been labelled a lesbian fiction writer, she's careful to keep her touch light in order not to alienate the general reading public.
"Fingersmith" is one of the best novels this season. It deserves and is destined for the widest readership possible. Highly recommended.
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73 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This third book of hers clinches it. Sarah Waters is god. There is nothing she can't do. Tipping the Velvet was great; Affinity was beyond great; Fingersmith is sublime. Reading it took over my life. Okay, that's happened once in a while before with a really fine book. But I don't recall this ever happening before: being so engulfed by a book that it made me dizzy, feverish, downright sickened--and hey, if you don't get that these are good things then you're not a serious reader--in sum, it rendered me virtually incapable of going about my daily life, my head and heart were spinning so over Sue and Maud and their story.
Waters has singlehandedly reinvented--no, no, she transcends--lesbian fiction, a genre that up to now has consisted almost exclusively of embarrassing, dim, dismal, dumbed-down dreck. Her writing is literary, her plots are engrossing, her feel for time and place is flawless, and sheesh, she even pulls off incredibly sexy sex scenes that are beautiful, believable, move the story forward and leave the reader's heart pounding.
Fingersmith is breathtaking. Waters is an awesome talent. Goddamn. She does us lesbians proud.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
I've been indulging in historical novels lately, and one of the surprises that I have discovered is how much I have enjoyed the work of Sarah Waters. In particular, this book.

Fingersmith takes the tale of two women, one prosperous, one poor, and then weaves a tale of deception and some of the uglier aspects of human nature into it. Divided into three sections, the narrative is told from the view of the two women, each one in first person, which gives it all a very personal, immediate intensity to the story.

Susan, or as she is called sometimes, Sue or Sukey, lives in one of London's more notorious slums, the Borough. Outside of the doors of the house on Lant Street, pickpockets, theives and prostitutes work their trade, but within, the oddest of families have formed. While the business -- that of a fence of stolen goods, Mr. Ibbs, is technically the person in charge, everyone knows that it is Mrs. Sucksby who is actually running everything. And as a most modern woman, Mrs. Sucksby has her own profession -- operating a baby 'farm', where foundlings are raised, sort of, with the aid of gin, and either sold or buried, as the case might be. With these three, are three children of sorts -- red haired, slow Dainty, who can unpick monograms and clothing with the greatest of speed, and John Vroom, nasty and vile boy with bloody manners and ugly attitude, and finally, our heroine Sue.

Sue doesn't steal, or turn tricks, but rather is Mrs. Sucksby pet. The older woman, sly and quick, has taken a fancy to her, treating her as her adopted daughter, and cossetting her from the worst that Lant Street deals out. Sue has a distant feeling that something is planned for her, but also is content to drift, letting the dubious comforts of her life cocoon her. That is, until Mrs. Sucksby's sometimes lodger shows up.

Gentleman, as he is known, is a handsome charmer who manages to make everyone smile with his arrival. Well-dressed, soft-spoken, he is a prince here, and knows it. And when he extends an offer to Sue to come help him in a con with an heiress -- and Sue getting more than 3000 English pounds as her part of the take -- Sue just can't say no.

Finally, there is the mark in this tale of deception. Maud Lilly is a delicate heiress, working for her uncle as his secretary as he remains secluded in his library. The work is a vast catalog of books, with mammoth cross references and details, and Maud is kept as a near child, to Sue's eyes, with her hours of writing, and dresses that are more suited to a child than an adult, and her hands always encased in kid gloves. Maud is just as childish as her clothing, and Sue is soon consumed with doubts about what Gentleman is planning to do with Maud -- namely, get her to elope with him, marry him, and then shut Maud up in a madhouse. Maud clings to Sue, and when the relationship becomes very close indeed, the reader is left to wonder if Sue is going to leave her mistress in the none-too-pleasant clutches of Gentleman?

Of course, what really happens is a shocker, along with the revelations that come later in the story. It's a grim one, with plenty of doubledealing and mischief, where no one is really who they say they are, and a great deal of turmoil is gone through by both Maud and Sue. The setting is 1860's London, under a perpetual smog of coal smoke and fog, in a land where the sun is seen rarely if at all.

One aspect of the book is very disturbing, what with the use of pornography, and the fondness that the Victorians had for it, and the sexual -- and otherwise -- exploitation of children. Yes, most what Waters uses here really did happen, and more often than not, much worse. What is so chilling is that it is all presented rather routinely, which is how the Victorians must have viewed it, and Waters I think did not use it as a shock value. Today, one hopes, such behavior on the part of adults would be punished. So too, is the enviroment of the madhouse described, in ways that would make most of us recoil in horror. Despite all this, the book is nearly impossible to put down, with the story of Sue and Maud giving new twists and turns with each chapter and rising to an ending where justice, if it can be called that, is served.

The language here is rich, full of thieves' cant and slang, with plenty of rich descriptions of life in London, and at the remote manor of Briar that is Maud's home. Waters command of the language is subtle and disturbing, and while this isn't for everyone, it is certain to raise a shiver or two along your spine.

I just wish now I had not delayed in reading this novel. And I envy you your discovery of this one if you decide to take it on.

Highly recommended.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading Fingersmith and I want to say that I haven't been this engrossed in a novel in months. I read mostly historical fiction, at least one book a month. This is a true page turner with lots of twists and turns. I could not put it down. This is not a book for the faint of heart or for someone who wouldn't like reading about the slums of London or about lesbians. If you can get past that, you will love this book. If you want a fast pace and a good story that really comes alive, this is a winner. Sarah Waters is a master story teller. I really would like to suggest this book to my historical fiction book club, but most of these ladies would be put off by the sexual overtones. I thought it was handled with finess and great sensitivity. I loved it.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2003
Format: Paperback
"Fingersmith" is the first Sarah Water's book I've delved into, partly because I've been scarred by terrible Victorian fiction in the past, and partly because I was afraid how her novel's would treat their overtly lesbian material. I was overjoyed to find it subtle and touching, without any signs of being tainted by public perceptions of lesbian relationships.
"Fingersmith" is a multitude of things. It is a mystery, a thriller, a horror and a love story. It is also a superbly detailed and well crafted historical novel. I'm gushing I know, but the truth is that I couldn't put it down.
The story is that of Sue and Maud, the love they bear one another and the tangled web that lies, deceit and family machinations weave around them. Add some intriguing plot elements (a bibliography of indecent literature and a madhouse) and stir with a truly delicious, but layered, villain, and "Fingersmith" comes out ripe and lush. There are some ingenius twists and turns, and true gut clenching moments when disbelief mingles with pure enjoyment.
I'll step back a moment to attempt an objective evaluation of the craft and style. Sarah Waters does not write in the slickest of prose, and many people may feel compelled to turn back after the first chapter. It is true that the first person narrative lends itself to a disjointed and clumsy beginning, but it won't take long for your palette to adjust. For those coming to the novel fresh from forays into other Booker material (and particularly this year's winner "The Life of Pi"), the dichotomy will seem clear and apparent.
Miss Waters is the author of plot driven novels, she is not a post-modern contemporary author driven by allegory and oxymoron similes. She follows hard on the footsteps of Dickens (although far more compelling) and inherits the voice of an Elizabeth Gaskell modernised for the 21st century. Don't allow this relative simplicity of style to put you off, the effect if by no means shallow or transparent. I promise you a truly gripping read if you perservere - the kind you remember from childhood when books were about turning the page and staying up all night to reach the end, not churning over the existentialist questions of existence.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Sarah Waters's third offering, Fingersmith, is one of those books that manages to sustain its pacing and interest throughout, despite any number of Dickensian twists and turns in the truly byzantine plot. The tone is dark and melancholy (although lighter than Affinity's), but there's always a glimmer of hope to keep you reading. Waters's pacing, setting, and characterization are among the most remarkable I've encountered.
The one thing that bothers me most about Waters's books is the public's and critics' tendency to lump them in with "lesbian fiction." What the heck is that? I'm not a lesbian, and I still find her books thoroughly engaging, interesting, riveting, and, frankly, fantastic. I'll read anything she writes, no matter what the sexuality of the characters....Highly recommended.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2008
Format: Paperback
I read Fingersmith because it was included on a list of 1001 books to read before you die. While I enjoyed the tale, I found it to be light entertainment rather than a substantial, totally satisfying reading experience. Fingersmith is the story of a London lass brought up in a den of thieves who becomes involved in a plot to dupe an heiress out of her fortune. On the negative side, the plot is convoluted and the characterization of the two main characters, Sue and Maud, is weak (although brought up in two completely different environments they seem almost interchangeable.) On the positive side, the author does a very good job in creating a Dickensian London, replete with con artists, pornographers, and a chilling mad house. Also some of the other characters, notably Mrs. Suksby, are developed remarkably well. Overall, I found Fingersmith to be definitely worth reading because it is entertaining but I do not think it merits the five star reviews it achieved.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Perspicacious and powerful, English writer Sarah Water's third offering is as lavish as her bold debut, Tipping The Velvet (1999). Once again the author returns to the period and places she so perfectly limns, while filling her complexly plotted tale with dissolute characters bent on nefarious doings.
It is 19th century London, Lant Street, a dark thoroughfare home to fingersmiths (thieves), most notably Mrs. Sucksby, a double-dealing Dickensian matron, if there ever was one. She traffics in castoff babies, whom she doses with a spot of gin when they wail, and is landlady to an assortment of petty criminals. There is Mr. Ibbs who keeps his locksmith's brazier going so he can melt down pilfered coins, and Sue Trinder, a 17-year-old orphan, who receives unusually tender care from Mrs. Sucksby.
An engaging charlatan, Richard Rivers known as Gentleman, suggests a fanciful plot that will make them all wealthy. He intends to scam elderly Mr. Lilly, a collector of rare books, by marrying Lilly's niece, Maud, described as "fey, an innocent, a natural." Once the pair are wed and she has received her inheritance, Maud will be consigned to a madhouse, and the plotters will divide their booty.
In order to ensure the success of his plan, Gentleman seeks the assistance of Sue. He asks her to pretend to be Susan Smith and gain employment as lady's maid to Maud so that she can help convince Maud of Gentleman's love for her. Sue agrees, and after instructions on how to behave leaves the only home she has ever known for Briar which she finds to be "a muddle of yards and out-houses and porches, and more dark walls and shuttered windows and the sound of barking dogs." Her reward for being an acceptable lady's maid? She will be allowed to keep "the pieces of soap that Miss Maud leaves in her wash-stand."
As chary as she is of being in this strange place, Sue finds herself drawn to the hapless Maud. The two women become unexpectedly close.
Then, in a sudden amazing twist, we find that things are not as they seem and people are not who we believed them to be. When the events that led up to this time are recounted through another's eyes we discover secrets long hidden and the shocking truth about Mr. Lilly's collection. Maud, too, has a story to tell.
Circumstances force the two women to respond in differing ways which leads to a horrifying crime before a completely unexpected denouement.
"Fingersmith" is an epic gothic novel rich in detail and ripe with suspense. Sarah Waters is an author both cerebral and cunning; she is a virtuoso wielding a powerful pen.

- Gail Cooke
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