Main image
14th December
written by Steph

Today is a momentous day, gentle readers, for today is the day I can claim to have lost my Sarah Waters virginity. It was a long time coming since there’s hardly a book blogger out there who doesn’t rave about her books, and yet I bided my time to see what all the fuss was about. Whenever I would see her books at McKays I’d always pick one of them up, but then I would pause and wonder if I was ready for Sarah Water’s jelly. I finally decided I need to take the plunge and picked up a copy of her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. The rest, as they say, is history. Tipping the Velvet tells the story of Nancy Astley, a young girl living in Victorian England who comes from Whitstable where she works in her family’s oyster parlor. Nan enjoys attending the local theater that puts on variety shows, and one evening she becomes completely captivated by a young masher (male impersonator) named Kitty Butler. Mesmerized by Kitty, Nancy attends the theater every night until her frequent visits finally capture Kitty’s attention. The two swiftly become thick as thieves, and Nancy is all too willing to throw over everything she has ever known in order to be with Kitty, desperately longing for more than friendship. Together the two head to London so that Kitty can further her career, and Nancy soon has her eyes opened to worlds she never dreamed existed, while also learning that following your heart and being true to yourself can sometimes be the hardest thing. Going into Tipping the Velvet, I had a few expectations. First: lesbian sex. I mean, come on! Even people who know nothing about Sarah Waters still probably know that her books feature olde tyme lesbians who aren’t afraid to get it on. Second: crazy plot twists to make me gasp and feverishly keep reading. I’ll say that with this book, Waters certainly delivers with the former but not so much with the latter. I found the first portion of the novel that dealt with the relationship between Nan and Kitty to be really interesting, but I found that around Book Two, the plot became rather slow and stilted, and it felt as though it didn’t have much direction. Although I didn’t always know exactly where the novel was going to go, I did find that I was able to guess many of the potentially shocking moments well in advance, as I found certain bits of foreshadowing to be rather heavy handed. I was never entirely shocked by anything that happened in the novel, apart from some of the sex scenes which really did get very explicit at times, sometimes shockingly so. I think I’ve said before that I think it’s really hard to write a sex scene that is genuinely sexy, and while I think Waters was largely successful, there were a few times where I wondered if she was verging into TMI territory. Sometimes less is more, you know? I did try to keep an open mind about these scenes, especially since I knew they would be present; I wanted to try to form an opinion that was independent of my own sexual preferences. I do think that I found the sex scenes overly raunchy, and I honestly believe that this was independent of the sex of the people involved in the scenes. I tend not to enjoy books that focus overly much on heterosexual sex, so I suppose it’s no real surprise that lots of lesbian sex isn’t going to make me love a novel either. That said, I did find this a very engaging read, and I really did enjoy the Victorian world that Sarah Waters created for her readers. I was disappointed that the much lauded Sarah Waters twists seemed to be largely absent, but I still thought the story of Nan was interesting and dealt with appropriate sensitivity. But for all that Nan’s story was interesting, I never really felt like I knew who Nan was. It seemed like Nan was wholly concerned with her sexuality, but apart from knowing that she prefers the company of women to men, I didn’t feel like there were any additional layers to her character. That, to me, was really disappointing as I felt that a character we spend 500 pages with should have more depth than “lesbian”. I did find myself wondering whether maybe the fact that we as readers never fully come to understand or know Nan was intentional, that she didn’t know herself and so we couldn’t either. Still, I felt like there was a lot to her character that felt superficial and she could have been better developed and it was disappointing to me that she felt rather one-dimensional. I did appreciate the story of Nan exploring her sexuality, of experiencing the thrill of first love as well as the heartbreak at its loss. I am a sucker for a love story, after all! But one of the other things I really appreciated about the novel was how it gradually does develop into a novel that examines the social and political realities of Victorian England. I liked that Waters was able to broaden her scope and look at the world around Nan and how being a “tom” (lesbian) wasn’t the only way to be considered a fringe societal element. I thought it was rather a nice parallel to see that those who were less concerned with adhering it societal norms regarding who they should love were also those concerned with progress and social revolution. Perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, but still something I appreciated nonetheless. Overall, I can’t say that I was completely blown away by Tipping the Velvet or that it has converted me into a rabid Sarah Waters fan-girl, but I would certainly be open to reading more Sarah Waters in the future. I think this might have been a case of my expectations being marginally too high coming in. I’m not really sure where I should go next. I feel like I might not want to read Fingersmith as an immediate chaser, simply because the setting seems very similar, so it might be nice to see what Waters does with a different time period. To all you Sarah Waters fans, where would you suggest I head next? Rating: 3.5 out of 5


  1. 12/14/2010

    I have to agree with you about this book, BUT want to say that this is NOT a book known for its twists! That book is Fingersmith, and as far as I know, it really is the only Waters in which you will find the amazing twists.

    For me, too, there was more sex than I wanted, and yet if you were gay in a closeted society, I imagine finding like-minded compatriots not to mention sex would also take precedence over everything.

    What I liked best about this one was the period evocation – Waters is so good at that. And I liked finally finding out what “tipping the velvet” meant! :–) But really, Fingersmith is not really like this one much at all, and I would still recommend going with that one.

  2. 12/14/2010

    I’m somewhat in the minority when it comes to this, but Tipping the Velvet is actually my least favourite of her novels. So I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that you *will* be blown away by Waters yet!

  3. Lu

    I have never read this book, so I cannot respond to the rest of this review, but I can answer your question, easily:

    THE NIGHT WATCH. Read it, love it. Or if you don’t love it, don’t tell me! I won’t be able to handle it. 😉

  4. 12/14/2010

    The one everyone seems to rave about is Fingersmith, which I really didn’t like, and since then I’ve tried to read several other Waters books and none have worked for me. I’ve given them all up after a few pages. I’m just going to have to think she’s not an author for me.

  5. 12/14/2010

    I have just picked up Fingersmith from the library but not yet got into it!

    I find that if I read one genre I generally like to switch genres sometimes an absolute reverse swing as it were… otherwise I tend to get bored fast. Fickle but thats me…

  6. I haven’t read this one, but have seen the amazing BBC adaptation so know the plot. I’m not surprised that you felt the way you did. It is quite a gentle book (aside from the sex scenes!) so I understand why you weren’t blown away. I LOVED Fingersmith so I suggest that you try it at some point, although understand it might be best to leave a gap between the two books. If you are after plot twists then I promise Fingersmith will not disappoint 🙂

  7. 12/14/2010

    If your only hesitation in heading next to Fingersmith is a concern that the two books would feel too similar back-to-back, I’d stick with your instinct and go ahead nonetheless; Fingersmith has a very different feel and it will, as others have said here already, explain why readers speak of her knack for turning your expectations upside-down. My favourite novel of hers is actually Affinity, but it’s highly atmospheric and, so, a slower tale. Tipping the Velvet isn’t my favourite, but I do understand why others love it more than I did, and, like you, I did really enjoy the first half.

  8. 12/15/2010

    @ rhapsody: I somehow had the impression that all of Sarah Waters books were filled with twists, so I guess that was a misconception on my part. And I agree that while I thought there was perhaps just a bit too much sex for my tastes, I can see how it was important not only to the author but also in terms of story!
    @ Nymeth: I thought it made sense to start with Waters’ first novel but it does sound like most people prefer her later novels more. So I am certainly not going to give up on her and will absolutely try something else by her in the future!
    @ Lu: Thanks for the fervent recommendation! I am sure I will like The Night Watch and if not… my lips are sealed! 😉
    @ Amanda: I understand how uncomfortable it can feel to be in the minority when it comes to a much loved author. Of course I am a huge believer in the fact that no author will have universal appeal and that’s what keeps things interesting!
    @ Mystica: Yes, I like to mix up my reading as much as possible, too. Sometimes I read two or three books that are quite similar, but generally speaking I try to keep things diverse so that I don’t get bored.
    @ Jackie: I am slightly curious about the BBC version of this novel, so I may borrow it through Netflix at some point. Perhaps after the story has mellowed a bit in my mind so that I am not making direct comparisons between the two. Glad to hear you really enjoyed it!
    @ Buried in Print: It certainly sounds like Fingersmith is the runaway favorite amongst avid Waters readers, so perhaps that should be my next choice (after a suitable break). I don’t have any problem with atmospheric novels, however, so I’m sure I’ll try it at some point too.

  9. Eva

    I read this one with no expectations, certainly not of twists, and I loved it. I liked how Waters turned certain conventions of romance/coming-of-age stuff on their heads…empowering a prostitute, making the sexual predator a woman, etc. But mainly I just loved Waters’ writing. 🙂

    I’ve only read her first three, since I’m spacing them out to make them last longer, but Affinity and Fingersmith are both set in Victorian times and both feature twists. I will say, when you get to them eventually, that although the twists are really fun, I figured them all out beforehand. Just trying to temper your expectations! lol

  10. 12/14/2010

    This and Affinity are the only two Waters novels I haven’t read, but I do want to echo Jill and say that I think her reputation for twistiness is mostly because of Fingersmith. The Night Watch isn’t twisty at all, and The Little Stranger is more ambiguous than twisty.

    Also, I’ve been told that this book is more sexually explicit than her other books. Fingersmith and The Night Watch do have some sex, but it never verged into TMI territory for me. (Everyone’s line is different on that, of course, but I think my line is not so different from yours.) And for what it’s worth, there’s no sex in The Little Stranger at all. Heck, there aren’t even obvious lesbians in The Little Stranger. So it might be a good choice for your next attempt.

  11. 12/15/2010

    I think this was Waters’ first book and I personally think she got better as she went on. Fingersmith is just an amazing read – the plotting is so clever it makes you gasp at times. She has turned into a very fine writer in my view and I await further books from her with keen anticipation – not many authors I can say that about!

  12. 12/15/2010

    I haven’t read this book yet, but bought it, along with all her others after reading Fingersmith. I know that is not the direction you want to go in next, so I will save my gushing about it and say that The Night Watch is completely different than most of her other work, and deals with WWII, so that might be the second one you could try for a different perspective on Waters. Though you didn’t love this one, your review actually made me pretty excited about it, and I am going to be looking for it to add it to my TBR pile in the upcoming months. Thanks!

  13. 12/15/2010

    @ Eva: I definitely appreciated with Waters did in terms of turning traditional literary/societal conventions on their head, so I wouldn’t want anyone to think I didn’t! I think that this is a novel that I like or appreciate more in theory than I did in terms of its overall execution; there were lots of great ideas and fresh perspectives, but there were elements of the novel (like Nan’s characterization) that did feel a bit weaker to me.
    Oh, and I will definitely try to have more realistic twist expectations when I pick up my next Waters!
    @ Teresa: I’m definitely interested to see what Waters does with different settings that don’t involve down and out Victorian girls, so The Little Stranger definitely appeals! But I think perhaps I should read Rebecca first!
    @ Tom C: This was Waters first book, so I completely believe that it may be the weakest of her novels when considered in retrospect. Can’t remember the last time a book made me gasp with surprise, so you’ve certainly made Fingersmith all the more appealing!
    @zibilee: I have read some other things about The Night Watch, namely that it involves playing with timelines which I tend to really enjoy so it’s definitely one that appeals to me.
    And while I didn’t love this one, I did think it was a good read and I’m not sorry I spent time with it. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

  14. 12/15/2010

    I lost my Waters virginity to Tipping the Velvet too! It was in my pre-blogging days, so I really had no expectations and rather I just happened upon it. I loved it, as well as my next Waters read, Fingersmith. I wasn’t too fond of The Little Stranger though.

  15. 12/15/2010

    I’ve never read anything by her either… but I saw the TV adaptation, so no plot surprises left for me!

    I’ll probably pick up “The Little Stranger” sooner or later. The plot sounds interesting.

  16. 12/15/2010

    I’m the same way about books with a lot of sex in them – it’s just not my favorite thing. I do think that less is more when it comes to creating a scene that carries that tension and/or romance. A lot of detail can really distract from that in my opinion.

    I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I’m planning to start with Fingersmith since so many people have raved about it.

  17. 12/15/2010

    About time! 😉 I’ve read The Night Watch and Fingersmith and absolutely adored both of them. Expectations are a tricky thing. would recommend giving The Night Watch a try, it’s one of my all-time favourite books. It’s set during WWII in London and you shouldn’t really know more, but just jump in 🙂

  18. 12/15/2010

    I was not impressed with Fingersmith; I liked the twists, but the book was about 200 pages too long and I could have done without most of the second section. I was annoyed enough that I haven’t picked up another of her novels after reading Fingersmith over three years ago.

    I’m not sold on Tipping the Velvet, but I’ll keep watching to see if you find one you love. I’d rather take my Sarah Waters recs from a non “rabid fan=girl”!

  19. 12/16/2010

    @ Stephanie: It seemed like the natural place to start, what with it being her first book… I am definitely sufficiently intrigued to seek out her other books, that’s for sure!
    @ Alex: I guess everyone has now weighed in saying this isn’t a book meant for plot surprises anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter that you’ve seen the tv version! I may check it out at some point…
    @ Alyce: Thanks for commenting! I have found that the authors who are more delicate when it comes to sex scenes tend to be the ones who write the more titillating scenes… best to leave something the imagination!
    @ Bina: It seems like the best thing with Waters books is to “just jump in”! Lately I’ve been feeling that about everything I read – I don’t want to know anything about the plot until I’m reading it!
    @ Erin: I did think that Tipping the Velvet could have been edited down a bit, so I wonder if that’s something that improves with Waters’ later books? I will certainly keep you posted as to how my future ventures turn out!
    @ Claire: Oh, you had to go there, didn’t you? I refrained from using the cherry metaphor throughout my post, but clearly that was in vain! 😉

  20. About time that you popped this cherry 😉 I’m sorry though that you were partially disappointed and imagine you were reading looking for this twist you expected… Fingersmith is definitely the one renowned for its twists (unfortunately really as it spoils the shock).

    Tipping the Velvet was my first Waters nearly five years ago and I enjoyed it well enough (especially the oysters) but wasn’t wowed until Fingersmith. I have now read them all. I think that narratively you will love The Night Watch & she evokes the 1940s exceptionally well. I wasn’t a fan of The Little Stranger but, yes, read Rebecca first & read it before seeing the motion movie (in the works as is a television adaptation of The Night Watch for early spring). Affinity is also very good; gothic, atmospheric & great sense of Victorian place.

    I now feel strongly tempted to reread The Night Watch.

  21. You left it wide open for me to go there! I couldn’t resist :-p

  22. 12/17/2010

    Glad to hear that you have ventured into Waters!! I really enjoyed TTV – and unlike many other fans of her work I didn’t enjoy Fingersmith as much. My absolute fave is The Night Watch – I’m really tempted to read it again over my holidays.

  23. 12/17/2010

    I read Fingersmith and really loved it, and I hope to read The Night Watch at some point. I’ll remember not to expect crazy plot twists in Tipping the Velvet if I ever get there. I really like Waters, but I’m not quite sure I need to be a completist with her. Perhaps this one is a good one to skip?

  24. 12/20/2010

    Sadly, I have only read Fingersmith so far so can’t recommend any but this one. I loved Fingersmith and do plan to read the rest by Waters at some point.

  25. mee

    I was meant to lose my Sarah Waters virginity this year, but looks like it’s not gonna happen! I’m kinda torn whether to start with Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith. I do have Velvet on my shelf. If I do read that one first I’d be sure to read it with no expectation of plot twist and such.

  26. 12/21/2010

    @ Claire: You’re right! I was asking for it!
    @ Karen: It sounds like even when people don’t love one of Waters’ books, they don’t regret having read it. It’s always nice when you find an author who is consistently good!
    @ Dorothy: Can’t say whether this one is skippable as it’s the only book by her that I’ve read! Once I’ve read a few more books by her, I’ll let you know!
    @ Kathleen: I am definitely going to read Fingersmith at some point as I need to know what all the love is about!
    @ mee: If you already have TTV, it can’t hurt to start there, but as you say, just don’t expect there to be crazy plot twists!

  27. 01/05/2011

    I saw the TV adaptation of Tipping the Velvet first then read Fingersmith which didn’t really knock me sideways. Then several years later I went to see her talk and read The Little Stranger and loved it. And then I read The Night Watch and loved it even more. So I’m slowly working myself backwards. I thought Affinity was great too and have decided I need to re-read Fingersmith again (hopefully this year). I think part of the reason why I loved The Little Stranger and The Night Watch so much was the interwar and postwar periods she set the novels in, which I’m partial to. I totally understand about expectations ruining the reading experience. But I hope that you will go back and read something else by her.

  28. 01/05/2011

    @ sakura: I am definitely going to read more Waters in the future! Not this year, though, as I don’t have any other books by her and I’m on an acquisition ban, but some day! 😀

  29. 01/05/2011

    I am still a Waters virgin, her books are really hard to find in India…maybe it’s because of the lesbian aspect. In spite of your review, I would like to give her books a try, maybe not this one though.

  30. 01/07/2011

    @ Nishita: Yes, I could see how explicit homosexual literature might be hard to find in India! Perhaps you might find some of her later books easier to find?

Leave a Reply