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.

Holly reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tipping the velvet by sarah waters

When I was just 30 pages in, this is the review I was considering writing for Tipping the VelvetThis book is so sweet I can barely stand it.  The end.  At this point I had hoped that the entire book would be a drawn out tale of Nancy and Kitty falling in love, staying in love, and laying in bed eating pie without a care in the world.  Of course, Sarah Waters tells a much more interesting story.

Spoilers ahead.

Nancy, the protagonist, narrates the story.  Born and raised in a small town by the sea called Whitstable, working in the family’s oyster restaurant, she lives a fairly unremarkable life until the day that she sees a male impersonator named Kitty Buttler perform at the local music hall.  Nancy finds herself compelled to return to the music hall over and over, night after night, in order to watch Kitty perform.  Eventually Nancy and Kitty meet and strike up a close friendship, while Nancy begins the bewildering process of falling in love.

Sarah Waters describes this process with such innocence and tenderness, and so skillfully plays on the reader’s sense of expectation, that I felt myself reacting physically to the words on the page.  I clearly felt the pang in my chest, the pull at my stomach, my heart in my throat when Nancy and Kitty finally–finally!–kiss for the first time.  From this giddy moment of joy to the eventual wretched heartache, we, along with Nancy, are mired in the whirlpool of doubt and certainty that accompanies the terrible and wonderful descent into the heart of another.

When reading about that heartache, I felt it, too.  So, at 134 pages, my review would have been more along the lines of This book is so sad I can barely stand it.  Again, Waters artfully details the nuances of emotion that accompany the anguish of heartbreak.  That personal hell we’ve each experienced, in which you’re so steeped in despair that it’s all you can do to provide yourself with the necessities of life from one day to the next.  I see that torment mirrored in Waters’ words.  I can’t do them justice here.  You have to read them for yourself.

Although the plot takes wildly unexpected turns, I feel that the characters always stay true to themselves.  Nancy is vain, sometimes conniving, and seems to piece together her identity from the expectations of those around her.  We do, however, see some flashes of self-actualization.  For instance, when looking for new lodgings, Nancy is drawn to an advertisement for a room which reads Respectable Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger.  She explains, “…there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male.  I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.”

Waters’ descriptive ability provides specific information that allows for the reader’s senses to respond to the words on the page.  The book opens with Nancy describing Whitstable oysters, and my mouth felt saturated by their description.  Waters specializes in the details, creating three dimensional scenes for us to walk around in while we read her words.  I didn’t realize that I had finished the book until I read the last sentence.  The story was so compelling right to the end that its conclusion, although satisfying, snuck up on me.

Elinor reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

payingguests

Set in London after the end of World War I, The Paying Guests is a gorgeous and haunting novel. It begins with Frances Wray, a single woman in her mid-twenties, and her widowed mother waiting for their new lodgers. The loss of Frances’ father and the discovery of his poor financial decisions has reduced the once-wealthy family to a meager existence, with only their beautiful home to sustain them. The lodgers, or paying guests, are Lilian and Leonard, a young married couple coming up in the world at the same time the upper class Wrays are slipping down. Frances’ life is bleak. She’s lost both her brothers in the war along with her own dreams of independence now that she is all her mother has left. A former activist who once hoped to forge her own life with a woman she loved, she spends her days attending to the tedious tasks of managing the household, occasionally visiting her ex (and ex’s new girlfriend), and steeling herself against the disappointment of her life.

To Frances’ surprise, the paying guests bring much more than desperately needed money. Her growing friendship with Lilian and Leonard gives Frances unexpected joy. Then as she and Lilian grow even closer, the possible price of this happiness looms.

The later part of the book centers around a murder investigation that is not a whodunit. Though you the reader know what happened, the motivations of characters become less clear as the police look into the death of a resident of the household. Secrets about the characters come to light, changing what you thought you knew. The investigation raises difficult questions about what is the right thing to do.

I found this book a slow start but absolutely worth the effort. The writing is emotionally evocative, stirring in turns resigned disappointment, desire, joy, horror, and profound uneasiness. The vivid portrait of life in the Wray household is unforgettable without being flashy or fawning. This is an intimate book, revealing the quiet and everyday, which makes the dramatic events grounded and much more disturbing than they might have been in a more sensationalist novel. Though this book is quite long–well over five hundred pages–and not the sort you’d read over a weekend, it’s worth the time. For one thing, you’ll want to savor Waters’ writing and her ability to transport you completely into another time and another life. Reading this is not a frantic rush to figure out what will all happen in the end. It’s about enjoying the journey, one that will stay with you long after you put the book down. Folks looking for a light read won’t find it here but I highly recommend this novel.

Elinor reviews The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

nightwatch

Like basically every other queer lady bookworm my age, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith matter to me. Until recently, though, I hadn’t tried Sarah Waters’ other work.  I read The Night Watch on a whim, and I’m glad I did. This quiet slice-of-life novel is slow, but I fell in love with the characters. This novel is told backwards, starting with a couple weeks in 1947, then covering a few months in 1944, and finally showing the events of a handful of days in 1941. It tells the intersecting tales of three women and one young man in London. Each is, in their own way, privately reeling from past hurt, and the reasons for their pain are teased out over the course of the book.

The novel opens with Kay, a masculine lesbian who is renting a flat from a faith healer. Kay spends her days walking, going to the movies, and visiting a friend she met as an ambulance driver during the war. The story soon shifts to Viv and Helen, friendly colleagues who each have secrets. Helen lives with her girlfriend, a writer named Julia, but to the world they pretend they are only friends. Viv has illicitly been seeing her boyfriend, Reggie, for years, and their once passionate relationship has fizzled. The narration also focuses on Viv’s brother, Duncan, a young man living with an older man who he calls his uncle. Duncan works in a factory, and once a week takes his “uncle” to the faith healer below Kay’s flat. When Duncan unexpectedly encounters someone from his past, it threatens to upend his life as well as Viv’s.  Each character’s post-war life is presented matter-of-factly and with a tinge of mystery of what how exactly they ended up with their present struggles. Why is Kay lost and depressed? What keeps Viv with Reggie? Why is Helen so paranoid about her relationship with Julia? Why is Duncan underachieving and living with this “uncle”? What connects Viv, Helen, Duncan, and Kay?

The story then moves back years earlier, during the war, and provides a dramatically different view of the same characters and their relationships. The bulk of the story takes place in this period and reveals most of the reasons for their post-war malaise. Finally, the novel concludes with a single event in each character’s life that placed them on their course.

The book was heartbreaking and very beautiful. I loved the inventive structure and once I was invested, I cared about the characters. The horrors of the blitz are portrayed in visceral detail, as are other private horrors that the characters face. Discovering how each character ended up in their situation is fascinating, and incredibly sad. Waters knows how to evoke emotion without being cloying or sentimental, and she does not pull punches with this book.

I loved it, but other readers may find The Night Watch too depressing. I felt emotionally drained when I finished it. For me, it was worth it, but fans of happy endings might disagree. Whether or not you enjoy the book depends largely on the degree to which you engage with the characters, and not everyone will like these reserved Londoners and their private struggles. This is not a novel with an action-packed plot, which keeps the reader close to the main characters. If you don’t connect with the characters during the 1947 section, you probably won’t enjoy hundreds more pages with them. If you appreciate them, however, the book is haunting. I particularly felt for Kay, a gallant butch with the ability to stay calm in a crisis, whose bravery was essential in World War II but seems to have no place in 1947. I rarely see characters like Kay, even in lesbian books, though she incredibly true to people I’ve known in real life. I sometimes wished the book was just Kay’s story plus Helen’s, as I found Viv and Duncan sort of boring initially. By the end Viv and Duncan won me over, and Duncan’s 1941 scene was incredibly powerful and emotionally devastating, but Kay was still my favorite.

Did I like The Night Watch more than my long-standing Sarah Waters favorites? No, but it was gorgeous. I highly recommend it. Just keep some tissues handy.

Anna M. reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

payingguests

Sarah Waters, having brought us classics of lesbian historical fiction like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, has done it again with her new release The Paying Guests, which has the blend of romance, suspense, mystery, and historical detail that you’ve been missing in your life.

The year is 1922. Frances Wray is a genteel woman in London who, during the course of the first world war, found an activist calling (and a lady friend). After the war, however, she’s down two brothers and one father, her relationship is over, and she’s chosen to keep house for her aging mother rather than pursue her own dreams. At 26, she’s resigned to spinsterhood. As the house is expensive and her father managed to lose most of the family’s money, Frances and her mother decide to acquire some lodgers (the “paying guests” of the title) to help with debts.

Lilian Barber, a young woman with bohemian tastes, moves into the house with her husband Leonard. Their marriage is not an entirely happy one, and Leonard spends long hours away at work as an insurance clerk. If you’ve read a Sarah Waters book before, you have a good idea of where this might be going. I hesitate to say too much about the developing intimacy between Frances and Lilian and the twist that leaves them in crisis, but I will say that this is a solid choice for anyone who likes historical fiction.

Waters hones in on minute and intriguing details of period life in the postwar London of the early 20s in a way that leaves the reader feeling fully immersed. The book is told entirely from Frances’s point of view, leaving Lilian’s motivations clouded until the bittersweet end. If you’ve read Sarah Waters before, you’ll know it’s not going to be an easy road for Frances and Lilian–but that’s what makes her books great. A must-read for all Waters fans, and a great entry point for those who have never read her work before.

 

 

Danika reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

PayingGuestsSarah Waters is my favourite author, with Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith tied as my all-time favourite books. When I discovered her books, she had already published four novels, which I rapidly devoured. In 2010 she released another book, The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed, but was less eager to get my hands on because it was her first novel with no lesbian content. So ever since I heard about The Paying Guests being released I’ve been chomping at the bit for a chance to read a brand new (lesbian) Sarah Waters novel. It’s one of the very few books that I immediately bought the day it was released. And then, oddly, it sat on my shelf for about a month. My excitement to read it has transformed into a kind of dread. I haven’t read a Sarah Waters book for 4 years: longer than that since I read a lesbian book of hers, which was back when I was a teenager. What if it wasn’t as good as the others? What if I don’t like her writing as much as I used to and it’s not like I remember?

So I went into The Paying Guests with a lot of expectation, though very little knowledge of the plot. I knew it was set in 1920s London, and that involved a woman who takes in a young couple as lodgers, and that there was lesbian content. As I started to read, I relaxed a little. Sarah Waters has a skill of establishing place and mood, and I was soon submerged in the setting, which is different than the more freewheeling flapper stories that I’ve previously read about set in this time period. For Frances, the main character, the Victorian era isn’t that far in the past. I also instantly loved Frances, who struggles to take care of a huge house as well as her aging mother, but still remembers her life when she wasn’t so tied down. The paragraph were Frances first charmed me was

There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires… But they were physical matters mostly, and she had no last-century inhibitions about dealing with that sort of thing. It was amazing, in fact, she reflected, as she repositioned her mat and bucket and started on a new stretch of tile, it was astonishing how satisfactorily the business could be taken care of, even in the middle of the day, even with her mother in the house, simply by slipping up to her bedroom for an odd few minutes, perhaps as a break between peeling parsnips or while waiting for dough to rise–

A movement in the turn of the staircase made her start. She had forgotten all about her lodgers. Now she looked up through the banisters to Mrs Barber just coming uncertainly down.

She felt herself blush, as if caught out.

It’s interesting how the feel of the time period seems to straddle the line between historical and modern, which was interesting to compare to Waters’s previous books. I found myself thinking that I would love to read them in order of the time period in which each book is set, because she seems to convey the subtle attitude changes through the decades so well.

I enjoyed the romance as well, which seemed natural and compelling, though occasionally verging on the soap operatic. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the overall tone to the book, which is fairly bleak. It feels similar to Affinity in that way. Most of the book revolves around an event that happens about a third of the way through the book, and because I wasn’t expecting that to be the focus, I was thrown. Even after finishing the book a couple of days ago, I still feel like I’m processing it. It is an excellent book, which definitely lives up to her previous books, but it felt emotionally jarring to me, which is probably because I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark. I would still recommend this one, but I wouldn’t start here as your first Sarah Waters novel.

The rest of my thoughts are spoilers. Highlight to read. I definitely wasn’t expecting The Paying Guests to get so bleak. The description of falling in love is sweet, if realistically syrupy. But the descriptions of falling out of love, of finding yourself hating the person you love, of finding yourself becoming someone you never thought you would be–they were absolutely cutting. Sarah Waters doesn’t just understand setting, she really knows how to portray tangled, messy human emotions. And that–more than the murder, more than the trials–was what horrified me in The Paying Guests. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I definitely found myself on Lillian’s side more than Frances’s. Frances lashing out at Lillian, beginning to treat her in ways reminiscent of Leonard, it inspired a visceral disgust in me. At the same time, though, I could all too easily understand why Frances was acting the way she was, and could relate in ways that I didn’t want to.

I thought that the ending would really determine what I thought of the book overall. I couldn’t see how Waters could possibly write an ending that was emotionally satisfying, but she managed to find pretty much the only ending that could have worked. It’s more bitter than sweet, but there’s still an element of hope, and maybe some redemption. It didn’t erase the gut reaction I had to the story, though, which I feel like I’m still carrying around. I wasn’t sure how to rate this book after I read it, because it seems unfair to mark it down for being too emotionally affecting, but I also don’t know how to look at it objectively. In the end, I have to think that anything that evokes this kind of response has to be recognized, at the very least, as incredibly skilled. If you feel like having you heart very slowly torn out, pick up The Paying Guests.

Hannah reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tippingthevelvet

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.

TB reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tippingthevelvet

Tipping the Velvet, published in 1998, by Sarah Waters is a historical novel set in Victorian England during the 1890s. Waters, a Welsh author, has written several historical fiction books. Tipping the Velvet was her first novel and after reading it, I have to say bravo. Not many writers settle into their craft so easily.
 
The greatest strength of this novel is the descriptions. When I was reading this novel, I didn’t just read the words; I was immersed into Victorian England. When Nan wandered the streets of London, I was right next to her. Seeing, smelling, and hearing everything. When Nan met people, I felt like I was shaking their hands as well. The descriptions in this novel are comparable to Charles Dickens. I’m a fan of Dickens so this is quite the compliment coming from me. I’ve read many good books in the past couple of years. And I’ve said I’ve found many new writers that I will continue to read. Sarah Waters may top all of the authors I’ve read recently. Not only are her descriptions amazing, but her storytelling abilities astounded me. Nan’s life takes so many twists and turns and I never tired of them. At times I wondered if Waters had story ideas on a dartboard and when she wanted to switch things up she threw a dart and went with the new idea. This isn’t to say that the different subplots didn’t mesh well. They all did and I think Waters has the ability to make the reader believe almost anything. When I read the last page of this novel, I was sad. Not about the ending, but that it was over. I wanted to continue with the story.

TB reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

fingersmith-bookcover

After I read Tipping the Velvet, the debut novel by Sarah Waters, I was hooked on her writing. She published Fingersmith in 2002 and it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize. It won the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger award for Historical Crime Fiction.

The descriptions in Tipping the Velvet wowed me. What dazzled me in Fingersmith was her ability to keep me guessing. At times I started to get angry. Every time I thought I had it figured it out I realized I was completely wrong. I started to feel stupid. This sounds like a complaint, but it isn’t.

The novel chronicles Sue Trinder’s life. Sue is an orphan under the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer” living in Victorian England. Mrs. Sucksby raises Sue as if she were her own. The house is always full of babies doused with gin to keep them quiet. Also, they share a home in the slums with fingersmiths, petty thieves.

Sue’s life changes drastically when Gentleman, a con man, enlists her help to swindle a rich heiress, Maud Lilly. Maud will inherit a large sum of money when she marries. The plan involves placing Sue into Maud’s home as the heiress’s maid and Gentleman will seduce Maud and marry her. Once the money is safe and sound, they’ll ditch Maud in a lunatic asylum. What could go wrong with this plan? Trust me, you have to read it to believe it. Each twist caused me to gasp. This novel kept me on the edge of my seat and I stayed up past my bedtime several nights in a row.

Not only did the reversals shock the heck out of me, but the subject matter in this novel angered me. The treatment of women in the lunatic asylum hopefully will make you shudder. My friend who recommended this novel calls Waters a social historian. I readily agree. Not only does she know how to spin a fantastic yarn, but I learn so much from her stories.

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.