Marthese reviews Carol by Patricia Highsmith

”How would the world come to life? How would its salt come back?”

Finally read this classic! Carol, originally published as The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith in 1952, was written in the late 40s, taking some inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s real life and running away with it.

The story is about Therese, a young woman who at first works in retail but is hoping to get jobs as a set designer. She’s currently dating Richard but she does not love him and he knows it. Therese grows a lot during the story and becomes less awkward, but first, she has a few existential crises. One day, during the Christmas rush, she helps Carol select a gift for her daughter, Rindy. Carol has grey eyes and poise and Therese is immediately taken with her. They meet again and begin a friendship that is obvious where it will lead, although there is some resistance.

This book is often described as the first lesbian story with a happy ending. I’m not sure whether the story could be said to be happy – because for sure there are scars – but Therese and Carol are true to themselves. It is also a realistic description of the time and feelings.

Since this book was made into a movie, many may know the story, so I will focus on themes and elements within the book.

One of the things that immediately struck me was all the descriptions of things that are seen. It made for visual and captivating prose. Highsmith also describes emotions vividly.

The character of Therese is introspective. As I mentioned, she has existential crisises. They are not about her sexuality mostly – she’s never been in love and she immediately makes a connection – they are about her work and the place she has in life. This is something that everyone can relate with. Although she starts of as really insecure, she doesn’t have a problem saying ‘no’ to things she doesn’t like! I could also relate to her because she pushed a lot of people out of her life when she needed a change – she knows when a goodbye is a goodbye.

How males interacted with her was also interesting. At first, Phil and Dannie (her boyfriend Richard’s friends) ignore her and it seems like she gets jobs because of her connection with Richard. However, she managed to become friendly with them and she also gets jobs based on her connections.

The character of Richard was also interesting. At first, although I didn’t like him, I pitied him. He and Terry also appeared to at least have a good friendship when they laughed, but as time went on, he become more bitter and more sexist, using the ‘but I’m a nice guy’ and ‘you’ll change’, he gaslighted her and threatening to expose Terry. These are pretty common tropes, but it was done well, and keeping in mind when it was written, I cannot help but feel that on many accounts, Highsmith was a pioneer and beyond her time.

Carol’s character I can imagine as being very poised and having a ‘resting bitch face’ that hid her emotions. She does care a lot but never begs too much and her voice and expressions are usually controlled. She is also very direct and is not afraid to criticize. Although there was hesitation at first and a few misunderstandings when problems escalated, these two know how to maturely communicate! One thing that I noticed, is that Carol seems to be depressed: ”Carol was happy only at moments” (page 168).

As with regards to gender, I believe that this book was really progressive. It humanized a lot and voiced a lot of probably unpopular opinions. One thing that bothered me a bit was the use of ‘men’ vs ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’, something which is still done today.

It also offers a complex view of sexuality. For example, at one point, sleeping with the same people is described as a habit. Carol also has loved Harge, the husband she’s getting a divorce from and also another female before Therese. And although Therese did not love Richard, she seems attracted to another man for a while. There are no explicit sex scenes, but there are allusions to a good night!

This book is a historical fiction, but it was written in the same time (so at the time, it was a contemporary read). This was really felt. It was, for example, really interesting to see how humans interacted with so little technology. People used to amuse each other, go out to eat, go for car drives and talk, and so on. We still do it, but it had a different vibe to it.

I would recommend to read this book especially at this time. The story starts before Christmas and although it’s not really a ‘Christmas/Holiday read’ because it goes beyond the holidays, there is still a holiday feeling with shopping, presents, and celebrations. This book is a classic because so many of the themes are applicable today, so many of the emotions felt we can nod to.

One question that I have after reading the book is…how many hotels did these two pay for and not stay in? I hope they managed to get a refund! Time to watch the movie now! I still haven’t…


Megan G reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder has been brought up to be a fingersmith – a petty thief. She lives with a baby “farmer” named Mrs. Sucksby, who has raised her as her own. One day, a man known to Sue as Gentleman arrives at Mrs. Sucksby’s house to enlist Sue’s help in a plot to gain the fortune of a lady. Sue is to be the maid of the lady, Maud Lilly, and convince her to marry Gentleman, after which they will abandon her to a madhouse. With the promise of a share of the lady’s fortune, Sue embarks on a journey away from the home she’s always known, unknowingly entering into a game far more dangerous than she could have expected.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I am the only queer woman in the world who has not read Fingersmith (or any Sarah Waters’ novels, for that matter). Well, maybe not the only one, but one of a handful. After years residing on my dauntingly large “to-read” list, I finally managed to pick it up, and oh, was it worth the wait!

Mystery is possibly my favourite genre, and Fingersmith delivered more than I could have hoped. I knew it would be a twisty tale, but I did not realize going into it just how many twists and turns the story would take. Every time I felt I’d just regained my footing after a plot twist, Waters threw another at me. Some were a little predictable, others caught me completely off-guard. Because of how many mystery novel’s I’ve read in my life, let me tell you, that is a pretty hard thing to do.

The love story is subtle, but poignant. There are very few explicit mentions of the women’s feelings toward each other until the end of the novel, and even then, it is dealt with in a way true to its time. Still, you can’t miss the obvious love these two women feel for each other, and despite all the deception and backstabbing they involve each other in, you can’t help but root for them. [Major spoiler] I also have to mention how wonderful it was to see a story like this end on a hopeful note for its lesbian protagonists. It would have been very easy for Waters to write their feelings off as a fluke, or to have them move on from one another, but instead she gives the reader, and the women, hope. It was refreshing, and allowed the story to end on a hopeful note, something I didn’t think would be possible [end spoilers].

If you have not read Fingersmith yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Although not technically considered one, I would easily classify Fingersmith as a classic. That being said, it is not without it’s warnings. There is a lot of explicit ableism and abuse (one extended scene of abuse taking place in an asylum had me cringing the entire time I read it). There are hints of rape, and very strong implications of a pedophilic relationship, as well as of pedophilic feelings from several men. [Major spoiler] A young woman is made to read sexually explicit stories aloud to men from a young age. As well, a character heavily implied to be gay dies in a very violent way [end spoilers].

If these are all things you can look past, I strongly encourage you to pick up Fingersmith if you can. Trust me, if you’re like me and haven’t read it before, you will be so happy that you did.


Danika reviews Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

When I finished Honey Girl, I was eager to dive into the sequel–mostly because I was absorbed by the setting (1972 Californian beach culture), but also because Riptide Summer promised to break the rule that “Girls don’t surf.”  I’m glad that I got see more of Nani and her life, but overall I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first book. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about this book that is different from the first book, just a few thoughts:

[Spoilers]

  • It’s not surprising that Nani’s relationship with Rox fell apart. I was rooting for them, but it was despite the obvious instability in their arrangement. It was disappointing, but not unrealistic, for them to so quickly turn on each other.
  • I felt like the characterization wasn’t as strong in this volume–Claire, for instance, is barely present, and I completely forgot her personality.
  • I did like that Nani started surfing, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book, and in secret. I would want to see more of her after the secret came out, and how she dealt with this new side of beach culture.
  • My favourite part of the whole book was Windy, the new love interest, and we barely get to see her at all! If there is another sequel that focuses on them and Nani’s new surf life, I would pick that up.
  • I wasn’t sure from the last book whether Nani was bi or gay, but despite wanting to kiss and date guys, she seems to decide that she’s a lesbian by the end, because she enjoys sex with women more. Unfortunately, this is also wrapped in a lot of biphobia: she tells Rox that she’s a lesbian, no matter what she says, and says she doesn’t want to be one of those funny kine girls who also date guys. The idea that someone can be attracted to more than one gender and that’s fine doesn’t really come up at all.

[End spoilers]

This series felt a little fractured, actually, like they were originally supposed to be one story and then were separated into two volumes. Riptide Summer didn’t seem to have its own arc; it just followed along where Honey Girl left off. I wish this had been condensed in some way, whether that was making Honey Girl and Riptide Summer one book, or skipping over a lot of Riptide Summer and getting more into the surfing plot line and the romance with Windy.

Alice reviews Escape to Pirate Island by Niamh Murphy

Escape to Pirate Island cover showing a woman in a flowing red dress looking over the ocean at a pirate ship

This book! I want to take this book, parcel it into treasure map wrapping paper, and post it back in time to my fifteen year old self. Not that it’s a book for teenagers specifically, but it’s the book I craved so deeply back then. I loved it, it really did, and I hope you do too.

The story follows two daring ladies and their friends, the daring, smart smuggler Cat Meadows, and the brave, proud Lily Exquemlin, as they flee the day they lost everything and peg all their hopes on a ship and the hope of treasure. With pirates, betrayal, marooning, and swinging from the high ropes, this book is thrilling. You, my friend, are on the edge of an adventure.

It’s is a well-written tale, with an engaging and distinct cast of characters which all manage to come across and individual, self motivated people, with clear personalities. Perhaps the bad guys are little too bad guy without reason, but it wasn’t something I even noticed when I was reading as my heart was in my mouth all the way through for Cat, Lily, and their friends.

Sadly, despite being a pirate story, there is no apparent racial diversity in the book, and the only disabled character in the book gets killed off nice and quickly to put the main character down the path she needs to for this story to work. This is always frustrating with pirate stories, as pirates came from all corners of the world, and with sea surgeons hacking of every other limb to stop gangrene, there were plenty of seafarers who weren’t as able bodied as the cast of this story.

I grew up on the British coast and this story made me heartsick for the sea, for the promise of freedom that the horizon seems to promise, and why else would you be reading a pirate book? The romance was sweet and standard for a YA, which I feel is where the story tone sits best, but be aware it does have one ‘Mature’ scene. The story celebrates loyalty, yet understands loyalty.

Honestly? Read this story. It’s fun, well paced, well written, you lose all track of the real world when reading it… it’s a wonderful little book. I recommend it for anyone who is fed up of the mundane and wants a swashbuckling adventure alongside a cast of real people whom you’ll feel you know well.

Elinor reviews Bound By Love by Megan Mulry

Bound By Love is a Regency era novella about Vanessa and Nora, women who have been together for twenty years. They’ve raised Vanessa’s children from a previous marriage and built a happy life together in the English countryside. Then Nora learns that her daughter, who she believed was stillborn just before she met Vanessa, may in fact be living nearby–and that Vanessa may have known there was a possibility Nora’s daughter was alive all along.

This is such an interesting set up for a story! It starts off strong, with alternating chapters in 1810 and in 1790, when Vanessa helped rescue Nora from her abusive husband and the two women fell in love. I’m not a huge Regency person but I thought the tone was fairly on point. I liked having a long term couple at the center of the story. Megan Mulry’s imagined pansexual, kink- and poly-friendly Regency England is charming.

Unfortunately, the tension wasn’t allowed to build enough, so the emotional pay off was limited. Even very serious issues are resolved quickly and without much lingering impact. I wanted the story to dive deeper, especially when Nora meets her possible daughter. Some problems seemed tacked on, which was unnecessary considering the potential for conflict and emotion provided by the premise. I had fun reading this, but in the end it seemed more like a draft than a finished novella.

This book is the second in a series of queer Regency romances by Mulry, which include kink, poly relationships, and which all connect. The final section of this book is the lead in for the next in the series and didn’t tie into the central plot all that well. If you have been longing for queer Regency, you might like to explore the series, especially if you just want a light romp. As a stand alone book, though, this didn’t impress me too much. Hardcore f/f Regency fans might want to check it out, but you’re not missing much if you skip it. Two out of five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Danika reviews Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman

It’s 1972, and while Nani may not be familiar with California, she’s a Hawaiian teenage girl, and she knows the rules of the beach. Rules like: Never cut your hair. Never go anywhere without a bathing suit. Don’t let boys see you eat. Armed with this knowledge, she’s determined to break into the line up of local beach girls and become a true honey girl. But beach girl culture is cutthroat, and it’s not so easy to earn a spot.

Rarely has historical fiction pulled me so completely into the atmosphere. This takes place entirely during the summer, right after Nani and her mother have moved to California after her father’s death. She’s struggling with his death, the move, and dealing with her (white) mother’s refusal to acknowledge her Hawaiian culture, all while trying to fit in in a whole new social scene. Honey Girl perfectly captures that feel of summer vacation sun-drenched days that seem to stretch on forever. It was fascinating to see the intricate power plays that happened between all the girls on the beach, who are competing for the attention of Rox and Claire–the rulers of the beach girls–almost as much as they compete for surfers’ attention.

Nani takes her reputation on the beach very seriously, and she calculates every word and movement to ensure that she follows the rules of the beach, which she is sure will be her ticket to success. I really liked Nani. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, who wants a quick route to a shiny, rich, Christian, American life. Nani wants to keep the memory of her father alive, and is determined to go back and take over his bar once she’s of age. She resents her mom, but she’s also the only family she has.

The beach has the real cast of characters, however. Rox and Claire, especially, are fascinating, but even the minor characters seem to have more going on than is explicitly written, like they’re wandering off the page to continue their own stories. Initially, I was briefly worried that I had somehow gotten confused, and that Honey Girl wasn’t a queer book. Then Nani talked about secretly looking at her uncle’s Playboys, and I stopped worrying. Still, although she acknowledges that she might be a funny kine girl (Hawaiian Pidgin for lesbian), her romance with a boy is a significant part of the story. It is not, however, the only romance she has.

[spoilers] 

Some people might be concerned about the cheating/”slutty” bisexual trope used here, but I enjoyed Rox as a character a lot, and both Nani and Rox seem to agree that in their situation, a beard boyfriend is necessary for keeping up appearances. I wasn’t sure if Nani was bisexual or a lesbian, by the end. She doesn’t use a label, but she seems to come to a general both/and conclusion for the dichotomies in her life: Hawaiian and white, Fiji and Nigel, Mom and Jean, Hawaii and California.

[end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this one, and I am very glad that I have the sequel lined up, because I really got sucked into the atmosphere of this story.

Shira Glassman reviews Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant

The English Restoration, i.e. when Charles Stuart II returned to England to take his father’s throne back from the Puritans, fascinates me for being a renaissance of both art and hedonism. Theaters opened again after being banned, and all kinds of sexual openness flourished. I purposely sought out queer lit set in this time period–not that there’s much, given that historical LGBT romance skews heavily Regency–and was rewarded with Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant. I think it’s out of print, but WorldCat has it at these libraries and Amazon has used copies.

Mistress is about a woman who comes to London to become an actress, and in the course of doing so falls for the lady playwright who’s been helping her hone her skills. It delivers most generously on lesbian romance, on plot twists and turns, and on evocative language. The author’s also done a remarkably good job at bringing a time period to life pretty vividly without falling prey to “look at meeee, I’m so well researched!” I felt the exciting earthiness of the time.

The actress, who is going by Amy but that isn’t her real name–she’s the Beauty with a Mysterious Secret Tragic Past trope–is scarred across her face, prompting the line: “I know I have a garden in my face–the roses and the thorns.” How it got that way, and what she’s hiding from, comprise the main conflicts of the book. She’s never heard of queerness before she came to London, not understanding why she’s so immensely, irrevocably drawn to her playwright friend Margaret, until one of her fellow actors gossips to her about their gay boss. Wait, that’s a thing people can do? Is that why I–

And straightaway, beautiful sensual sapphic prose starts gushing out all over the reader:

“I have deceived you,” [Margaret] said. “I have no poetry to share with you.”

“You are deceiving me now,” Amy said in a shaking voice, “For you are yourself a poem, and I have been hungering for you to share yourself with me.”

Their sex scenes glorify in sensuality, with that enthusiastic appreciation of breasts that validates my own impulses so soothingly. Amy is “my type”–a buxom, squishy, gorgeous brunette with luxurious hair and a tragic past. Margaret is one of those independent, outspoken, able to live slightly outside of society’s rules widow characters. They have chemistry from their very first encounter, and are totally believable as a couple.

“MARGARET AND I HAVE BECOME FRIENDS!” Amy gushes into her diary, too cautious to write what she really means. She goes on to add “I will say that we wrote poetry together, and whenever I read those words, I will know what they mean. And they are true indeed, for we have writ such poetry as I never dreamed of!” The metaphor doesn’t stop here, so the book is almost worth it for the “cunnilingus = poetry” jokes alone.

I love the way this book talks about writing inspiration and the way we create idealized and alternative versions of the people in our lives to interact with on the page. So very relatable.

The liveliness of the time period is evident in the snappy dialogue:

“I heard you had returned from the dead,” says the gay theater owner to someone recovering from violence. The man’s reply is “I did not like being dead, for the plays in heaven were quite dull and not the least bawdy.”

In one scene the two leading ladies recognize and mourn how it was easier for a man to be accepted for sleeping with men than a woman with other women, mainly because of misogyny. Incidentally this is a book that recognizes bisexuality as a phenomenon (without actually anachronizing by using the word), which was a nice touch.

My one quibble, and it’s a major one that’s the reason for the missing star, is the treatment of the book’s minor characters of color. Since it’s out of print, it would satisfy me deeply if this book were to return to print with those parts reexamined especially since they could be tweaked with zero impact on the actual story itself. I like the fact that the enslaved cook from next door insists right away that the main character call her by her real African name instead of the English name her own captor gave her–and that Margaret immediately does so–and I like the fact that the main character buys her and frees her at the end. But both she and her friend, another African captive, speak in broken English that felt awkwardly executed to me, and there are passages exoticizing her religious beliefs without actually adding anything to the story itself. I’m glad she was freed at the end but it would have been even more satisfying if she’d left England with the main character’s blessing after being freed instead of being asked to stay on as a servant and sneak out.

Trigger warnings: sexual assault in a flashback, and also for a brutal attack sustained by the gay supporting character from his lover’s brother’s henchmen. I found the lesbian positivity in the book so overwhelmingly affirming that it didn’t bother me as it ordinarily might have, but it’s there all the same.

Thank you for taking the time to read my review! I write more of them at http://shiraglassman.wordpress.com and on Goodreads, or check out my latest book, The Olive Conspiracy, Jewish fantasy about a young lesbian queen who must work together with her found-family, including her wife, a dragon, a witch, and a warrior woman, to save their country from an international sabotage plot.


Danika reviews Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairIt’s rare for me to pick up a book and be surprised to see it has queer representation. That’s part of being so immersed in the LGBTQ book internet: I’ve usually heard about the representation before picking it up. I picked Everfair because I was intrigued by the premise: a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. I like steampunk, but I’m even more interested in steampunk that isn’t in a European context. I was happily surprised to see that in addition to that premise, this book also has several queer women main characters!

This is an incredible and complex story. I wouldn’t pick this up as a light or quick read: it definitely took me a while to get through. Each chapter switches perspectives, and there are tons of point of view characters (I actually lost count). This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. The alternate history of the Congo was fascinating, and although the steampunk element was more subtle than I was expecting, there was so much going on that I didn’t notice. There are a lot of nuanced political machinations taking place, including negotiations between the people who helped to found Everfair and the rulers of the area who preceded the existence of Everfair.

At least three of the points of view characters are queer women, along with more minor characters. I would argue that the relationship between two of them is at the core of the book. They definitely don’t have a simple, sweet romance. It’s complex and deeply flawed, but it’s also passionate, genuine, and loyal. I didn’t always like the characters (okay, one of the characters, but I won’t spoil it for you), but I always appreciated the layered, believable relationship they built between them, which spanned continents and many years.

This is an ambitious novel, tackling difficult and multi-faceted topics (including war, colonialism, and racism). It is thoughtful and unafraid to deal with uncomfortable conversations. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to dive into a book that is far-reaching and thought-provoking.

Julie Thompson reviews The Liberators of Willow Run by Marianne K. Martin

the-liberators-of-willow-run

***A little bit of spoilers ahead***

Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.

During World War II, the United States “enlisted” women to help with the war effort on the homefront. At the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Audrey Draper is securing her independence with each B-24 Liberator heavy bomber her crew assembles. The women tax their minds and limbs as they build plane after plane after plane. The demand is incessant, so for the most part no one cares about their co-workers’ personal lives unless it interferes with the work at hand.

In another world not many miles away in Jackson, Michigan, Ruth Evans is shipped off to The Crittenton Home, a place for families to hide pregnant, unwed relations. The deep friendships that Ruth develops with some of the women give her strength to overcome the limitations of her environment. These relationships will determine the course her life and the lives of those around her, takes.

Most of the women employed at the bomber plant are married or engaged or otherwise involved; Audrey and Nona are exceptions. For the world at large, Audrey has a boyfriend stationed overseas with the US Army. She isn’t comfortable with the lies her sexuality necessitates, but she does what she has to in order to protect her autonomy. Between 1943 and 1946, she has a steady job and folks don’t complain (much) about the slacks she wears or lack of rouge on her cheeks. It is what comes after the war that she worries about. Can she secure a meaningful career, one that doesn’t require too many personal compromises? While the novel wraps up all loose ends rather quickly at the end, the conclusion is not implausible. It resonates with the hopeful tone that permeates the story.

The tale initially alternates between Audrey and Ruth, converging a quarter way into the book when the two women meet and bond over scoops of ice cream. Their burgeoning friendship is impeded by guilt and insecurity. The Liberators of Willow Run follows a familiar push-and-pull romance, with the heroines discovering more about themselves and the women they will become as they help other people and each other. It’s a quick read; I devoured it on New Year’s Day.

The leads and supporting cast possess admirable qualities: they lift each other up, instead of trampling each other underfoot. Certain aspects of the story are a bit surprising. Nona’s ready acceptance of a secret Audrey shares at the start of their friendship, for example. Not to say that some folks aren’t unflappable; perhaps the two women’s status as “other” makes this acceptance possible. At times, the world of Willow Run feels like a sky with minimal clouds. This isn’t to say that the women don’t experience misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, and limited career options. They do, but those moments never feel insurmountable or harrowing. The novel could have easily gotten stuck telling too many stories at once or seeming to tack on certain narratives without infusing them with genuine feeling.

Secondary characters showcase a range of attitudes regarding women and African-Americans in the workplace. Up until the divergent narratives merge, I thought that Nona would play a larger role in the novel. She is a self-aware woman who is unwilling to sacrifice her educational and career goals. Unlike her white counterparts, she must contend with both sexism and racism. She is also generous in her friendships and confident when facing barriers. Jack and Lucy, a married couple who work at Willow Run and give Audrey rides to work, take a pragmatic view of life and seek a level playing field for folks who do the best they can. When riots near the church Nona is staying at prevent her from getting to work on time, Jack speaks up on her behalf because the foreman isn’t willing to listen to women. Myopic views on social roles are found in characters like the crew foreman, who constantly groans about women at the plant, and in June, a reluctant wage earner who believes a woman’s only place is in the home, raising children. She also ignores Nona, and speaks over Bennie, an easy going co-worker who stutters when he speaks.

The Liberators of Willow Run gives readers a world in which the family you choose enables endless possibilities.It brims with hope in the face of limited choices and half-truths. The women are keenly aware of their limitations, though their friends more readily see the good, the potential, that lie in their hearts. While I would have enjoyed more details placing me solidly in the United States during the 1940s, it was an overall enjoyable lazy day read.

Women on the Warpath (1943) – Inside the Willow Run B-24 Plant: https://youtu.be/HQKvBPjxMo4

Building The B-24 Bomber During WWII “Story Of Willow Run” 74182
https://archive.org/details/74182StoryOfWillowRun

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Rachel reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tippingthevelvet

British novelist Sarah Waters is known for her historical novels, some of which take place in Victorian England and/or have lesbian protagonists. Her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, first published in 1998, is viewed as a lesbian classic by many readers.

The story opens in Whitstable England, 1888, with eighteen-year-old Nancy Astley, who helps her family run their oyster business. Restless and wanting new experiences, she attends a theater one evening and gets her first glimpse of Kitty Butler, a performer who dresses as a man for her act. After becoming friends, Nancy grows strong romantic feelings and eventually joins Kitty’s act, taking the stage name “Nan King” and earning countless admirers. She is thrilled when she and Kitty admit their love for each other and begin a relationship, although Kitty insists on keeping it a secret. After an unexpected betrayal, Nancy leaves Kitty and takes to the streets, resorting to prostitution and masquerading as a boy to make ends meet. She is determined to forget her past, becoming reclusive because of it. Over the years she comes across countless people who shape her decisions. While a lot of the changes she experiences are difficult, others offer Nancy hope of turning her life around and falling in love again.

Sarah Waters’ writing is extremely rich in substance as she describes Nancy’s world, the people she meets, and the hidden lives of homosexuals. Scenery and surroundings are so well-detailed there was never any doubt where Nancy was or what was around her. The writing style seemed authentic for the time period, making Tipping the Velvet appear to have been published in the 1880s instead of a century later.

The novel’s characters each had their own differing views and personalities; it’s obvious that Waters put a great amount of effort into creating them all. Nancy herself was a bright young woman who did make some poor decisions, but also had a strong will to keep going. Her impulsive, vocal character both clashed and complimented with Kitty, who was a quiet thinker.

Two other people in the novel stand out for me the most, and they’re both polar opposites. Diana Lethaby was wealthy and well-connected, taking Nancy in at one point in exchange for a sexual relationship. But though she provided Nancy with nice clothes and an elegant home, Diana was really possessive and treated her lover like property. I despised her character and shared Nancy’s shock at her actions.

The other character is Florence Banner, a charity worker Nancy later befriends. She was easily one of the most complex characters in the book. Her personality shifted between cheery and grim, and sometimes she worked so hard helping others she didn’t think much about her own feelings. I was intrigued by her and wondered about her family and what kinds of experiences she had. As the story progressed and I learned more about her, it was much easier to sympathize with Florence and see the true, gentle-hearted person she really was.

Tipping the Velvet was an interesting take on sexuality in Victorian London. All through the book, Nancy meets a whole underground of gays and lesbians, which adds to her story because, although homosexuality was seen as a crime and perversion, there were still countless men and women who were trying to live their lives yet also acknowledge their feelings. Very little is really known about this world as it was almost never spoken of. But Waters makes strong parallels between then and now. Like today, there were bars and social circles where gays and lesbians found their refuge, and literature they read in secret, like Sappho’s poems.

Tipping the Velvet is a wonderful story for lesbian literature, although some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotica tone. I found it to be a masterpiece and look forward to reading Sarah Waters’ other books.