Sarah Waters takes inspiration from Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins as she weaves the complex fabric of Fingersmith. What begins as a seemingly simple long con grows suddenly into a much larger conspiracy. And, like all good conspiracies, you never know whom to trust.
The story starts with young Sue Trinder, an orphan being raised in a house of thieves. When a handsome man (Richard “Gentleman” Rivers) arrives with a proposition, Sue quickly finds herself posing as a lady’s maid in an isolated mansion. Her task to is gain the trust of heiress Maud Lilly and convince her to marry Rivers because upon doing so he will have access to her fortune. Rivers tells Sue that he will dispose of Maud at a mental asylum after he’s gained her money (and she will inevitably get her cut of the profit).
A simple enough premise for the first third of the book. Although, as Sue spends time with Maud she begins to feel compassion for her (even though she knows she’s sending her to her doom). The inner turmoil that Sue faces during this time (and that we see Maud faces later in the book) ads much to a story that would otherwise be a simple crime fiction story.
At the end of Part 1, everything is turned on its head. The twist is so delicious that I have no intention of ruining it, but it definitely piqued my interest. However, what comes in Part 2 becomes instantly tedious, and it takes another hundred pages or so to get to the juicy twists (trust no one). And again in Part 3, tedium reigns. The overall story and the path to the end are well thought out and I have no argument with them. It just felt to me as a reader as if everything were moving very slowly.
There seems to be no small scene with Waters. She invests a lot of description into every detail, but what does it really do but slow the momentum of the story? A story that is, by itself, inventive and engaging. Even the finale confrontation scene (which lasts nearly 20 pages) felt tedious (is there a better word to describe it?). The characters all want to do something, yet they each refrain. They all want to say something, yet they refrain. It was highly frustrating.
Waters creates a very vivid Victorian London, and a very imaginative and twisty plot to inhabit that London. But there is something lacking in her execution that prevents the novel from reaching true greatness.