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.

Laura reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

So, I know that Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is, like, the lesbian book. But I’ve got to be honest with you: I really wasn’t all that into it. Terrible, I know! But hear me out.
Background:  Tipping the Velvet is set in Victorian England in the 1890s. It’s a coming of age “lesbian romp” involving singing drag kings, prostitutes, sugar mommas, and suffragists. Just about every type of lesbian activity you can imagine is portrayed in this book. (And I don’t mean that in an erotic sense, although there’s quite a bit of that, too.)
This book’s 1998 publication and subsequent literary reception and commercial success paved the way for many other lesbian books. And I am so, so happy about that. But the actual content of this book didn’t do much for me. Here’s why:
    1. The main character, Nan, was completely awful. The way she treats other people is totally wretched. Her irrational behavior is so unrelatable. I really just wanted to smack her. Repeatedly. Ugh.
    2. The plot just sort of… rambled. And on the one hand, that’s sort of how life is, right? Directionless? Unexpectedly veering off into weirdness? A little smutty? I would say yes. But on the other hand, books are not real life. And I prefer books with a little more structure.
    3. Oysters. Before she left home to fulfill her lesbian destiny, Nan’s favorite activity was sucking on juicy oysters. Which, I mean, really? Really?
I’m not saying this was the worst book ever.Tipping the Velvet was okay (and in fact, much better than many other works of lesbian literature I’ve read). I just felt let down after hearing so many great things about it! And after having read Fingersmith, I had really high expectations! All dashed!
Anyway, I think you should still read this. Or at least watch the BBC miniseries adaptation. But don’t expect it to be life changing or whatever. This is more like homework, so that you can converse intelligently with other people on the subject of queer media. Because if most people have only encountered one lesbian book in their lives, it’s probably this one. (Sigh. Can we change this? Can we all get together and take a vote? Where are my lesbian literati at? Call me, ladies.)
Tipping the Velvet has also been reviewed for the Lesbrary by Ami and Danika.