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Affinity Paperback – January 8, 2002
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Affinity is a tale of power and possession that Henry James himself might admire. In her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters explored secrets and longing--capping off this lesbian romp with a utopian-socialist vision. Her intricate follow-up is just as sensual but infinitely darker, its moral more difficult to descry. Its stylistic and psychological rewards, however, are visible at every turn, the author's persuasive imagination matched by her gift for storytelling.
In late September 1874, Margaret Prior makes her way through the pentagons of London's Millbank Prison, a place of fearful symmetry and endless corridors. This plain woman on the verge of 30 has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. And our Lady Visitor plans to take her role dead seriously, having recovered from two years of nervous indolence in her family's Chelsea house. One person, however, makes her job a passion. Opening an inspection slit (or "eye" as these devices are known), Margaret hears "a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story." Peering inward, she's confronted by the most erotic of visions--a woman turned toward the sun, caressing her cheek with a forbidden violet: "As I watched, she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow..."
Selina Dawes may indeed have the face of a Crivelli angel, but this medium is in for fraud and assault, her last session having gone very badly indeed. Suffice it to say that the first full encounter between these two very different women is enthralling. "You think spiritualism a kind of fancy," Selina riddles. "Doesn't it seem to you, now you are here, that anything might be real, since Millbank is?" And soon enough Margaret receives several viable signs of the supernatural: a locket disappears from her room, flowers mysteriously appear, and her dazzling friend knows everything about her. Strangest of all, Selina seems to love her.
As Margaret records her weekly prison forays, her own past comes into focus, notably her plans to travel to Italy with her first love (who is now her sister-in-law). But her current journal, she convinces herself, is to be very different from her last one, which "took as long to burn as human hearts, they say, do take." Meanwhile, Waters offers a narrative two-for-one, placing Margaret's diary cheek by jowl with Selina's chronicle of her pre-Millbank existence. This dispassionate, staccato record initially suggests that we can separate truth from desire. Or can we? What Waters's haunting creation leaves us with is a more painful reality--that knowledge and belief are entirely different things. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New Yorker
Her first, Tipping the Velvet, was good; her second is just terrific. Moody, haunting, and haunted (it's about love among Victorian spiritualists), Affinity is two parts Wilkie Collins, with whose The Woman in White it shares an obsession with prisons, madness, journal-keeping, and elaborate, carefully engineered deceits; and just a dash of Jeanette Winterson for up-to-the-minute lesbian-historical-fiction flavor. ("He, she--you ought to know that in the spheres there are no differences like that.") --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Fingersmith is the story of two young women who have nothing in common except the acquaintance of a man who goes by the name Gentleman. He's a crook who means to ruin an heiress in order to make his fortune. As part of Gentleman's plan to get rich quick, Susan leaves Mrs. Sucksby, the woman who raises her, and London, the only home she's ever known. When she travels to Briar to pose as Maud's maid, she soon discovers a connection that goes beyond the treacherous scheme that brings her and Maud together. Despite deceit, their kinship is cemented during all the time they spend in each other's company. Their heartstrings are pulled tight with thoughts of what is to happen next. They share a love believed to be so hideous as to be shunned by society and yet through it all, the hope of good coming out of evil is the hope that has readers turning the pages.
Gentleman, a despicable yet thoroughly charming con man, evokes little or no sympathy but he's entertaining in his cunning sort of way. Then there's Mrs. Sucksby, a petty thief, who raises Susan as a means to an end. When Mrs. Sucksby sells the other orphaned infants but keeps Sue as her own, Waters compels us to discover the motive behind baby farmer's actions. Mr. Lilly, Maud's uncle, is a depraved man who enslaves a girl for his gain. It makes us wonder how some people have few scruples to inflict cruelty upon others.
Waters captivates her audiences through vivid imagery as each scene builds the suspenseful plot only to pull a fast one at every turn. Anyone who longs for a Victorian novel told expertly in the Dickens style, who loves surprises, who enjoys characters to sink your teeth into, and who wants to come away uplifted, would do well not to hesitate another moment. Head over to your bookshop or on-line seller and pick up a copy today. Susan and Maud will forever be in your heart. You won't be able to put it down. If you crave authentic historical fiction, clever plot twists, and a fine romance, I highly recommend you don't miss this gem.
I think Waters really sets up an engaging plot in Part 1. We get to learn about Sue and some of the minor characters, and there is a nicely placed twist here and there. The atmosphere and attention to details really is spot on, really projecting sort of a Gothic vibe. You feel the gloom and the mysteriousness of places and surroundings. In this way, there is some fabulous storytelling in Fingersmith.
However, Part 2, and then ultimately Part 3, really fail to live up to the story that is set up initially. In Part 2, we take things from Maud’s perspective and, while it is interesting to hear the “other” side, we literally retread over way too much of the plot again. It becomes a bit long winded. I felt like Part 3 was the weakest of the sections, and many of the revelations and conclusions were anticlimactic. Moreover, the main protagonists of the book, Sue and Maud, really are not that remarkable or sympathetic, so it is hard to become fully invested or care that much about their fates. In the end, it was sort of a big “meh.”
This is my second read from Waters. I really enjoyed The Little Stranger, and would still definitely be interested in picking up some more of her works.