Those who love a good gothic novel will certainly appreciate this one, as will those looking for more LGBTQ stories and characters in their reading. I’ve been wanting to read Sarah Waters, but I started The Paying Guests and it didn’t grab me. This book did, with its Victorian London setting and its reference in the very beginning to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The main character is Susan Tinder, a young woman who is raised in a house of thieves (a fingersmith is a thief), but is raised almost like a daughter by the house’s mistress, Mrs. Sucksby. Susan is surrounded by corruption but is mostly innocent, until she becomes a part of a scheme to steal the fortune of Maud, a lonely but wealthy young woman.
I found Susan’s story engaging and sympathetic, and enjoyed the way the book plays on the tropes of a gothic novel, with its dark and creepy house in the middle of nowhere, the unhappy young woman who’s basically a captive, and the whispering and plotting behind closed doors. I’ll admit I don’t read enough gothic novels to know if these elements are tired and overdone, rather than a fresh and witty update of the genre. But I did enjoy the book and was definitely swept up in its dark atmosphere and its twists and turns.
I also appreciated this look at how powerless women are in this time period; whether they are wealthy or poor, they are basically slaves to their husbands or guardians. Part of this book takes place in a madhouse, which was particularly chilling. Waters suggests that it was shockingly easy to have a woman locked away at this time, and points out that in fact it was up to a woman’s husband or guardian when to let her out.
This is a long book, and there are places where it drags a bit. Waters uses two narrators, Susan and Maud. I found Maud’s story more difficult to read, in part because I liked her less, and in part because her story doesn’t entirely seem plausible. There were things that didn’t make sense to me, but I won’t go into detail because that might give too much away.
But I really liked Sue as a character and I especially liked the way she had to wrestle with her conscience and her feelings for Maud throughout the book. She’s been raised as oddly naïve in a very corrupt world, which makes her an interesting character. The plot may seem a bit over the top at times, but the characters and the very atmospheric writing make this book worth the read.