I’m ashamed to say that Tipping the Velvet is my first Sarah Waters read, but pleased to report that it didn’t disappoint.
Taking place in Victorian England, Tipping the Velvet is a mix of the coming-of-age and coming-out genres; its themes (if I am to reduce a twist-filled tale to such banalities) include leaving home, self-acceptance, and not giving time to people who can’t accept you (and themselves).
What is most memorable, though, is Sarah Waters’s writing. You can always tell a good writer by her food descriptions. Nan starts off as an oyster girl, and wonderful paragraphs are devoted to the texture of their shells, the dirt they leave beneath Nan’s fingernails when she cracks them, and, of course, their taste. I, personally, don’t like oysters, but when Waters describes Nan’s luxurious enjoyment of them, it leaves me craving her version of oysters. Likewise, the first time Nan sees the performer Miss Kitty Butler on stage, the scene is electric. I could literally feel Miss Kitty’s magnetism, and felt just as compelled as Nan to learn more about her.
The book, particularly around the third quarter, becomes much darker than Nan’s initial, sheltered life as an oyster girl. Sex work is discussed openly, and it’s nothing less than depressing. In fact, at times Nan’s situation becomes so dire that I doubted the book’s ability to redeem itself. [spoilers follow] I expected a sad ending; I was pleasantly surprised.
While Nan’s life sinks very, very low, the resolution would not be so satisfying if it didn’t. And, ignoring her darkest hour, this novel is full of scrumptious, sensual depictions of food, fame, clothes, and the stage.