Tipping the Velvet (thoughts)
Sorry about doing yet another book review. Usually, I like to post non-book review stuff as well, but this week it’s been one after another! This is because I’m having a bit of a dilemma, but it’s like a rich person’s dilemma, so I haven’t been sure whether or not I should mention it. This month I’ve been reading a ton-enough books that I’m reading more than one a day. (Note that several of these have been kids’ books!) As it happens, most of the books are either super-awesome or challenge reads: in both instances I like to do individual reviews. But, the arithmetic just doesn’t add up-I don’t like posting more than once a day, so my choices are pretty much to only do book reviews and forget all my fun, random posting (like, I’ve been wanting to do a post on how even though I own a copy of Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell, I had to request a copy from the library because my mom can’t handle the mass market paperback edition I bought as a cheap college student…I really want to take a picture of the two editions side-by-side, because it’s hilarious) or be content with blurb reviews in my Sunday Salons of books that really deserve a full post. So, hopefully I can figure that out soon!
In the meantime, since the 1% Well-Read Challenge ends tomorrow, here’s my final review. I loved Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews of her other books, Fingersmith and Affinity, but I haven’t seen this one talked about much (in fact, I bookmooched it thinking it was Fingersmith, lol). Like her other novels, Tipping the Velvetis historical fiction set in Victorian England; it’s a coming-of-age novel centered around, narrated by, Nancy. It’s also about love, and all of its forms…puppy love, carnal love, soulmate love, forbidden love. Oh-and there’s a fair amount of sex in here too. The sex scenes are all very well-written, and there’s just enough smuttiness to keep things entertaining without going overboard.
So, other than the smuttiness, why did I love the book so much? First of all, Waters has a wonderful style. This book sucked me in with its opening (why yes, I’d be happy to share it with you):
Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives-as they are properly called-the largest and the juiceiest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England.
(I should point out the book’s written in first-person, not second, after the opening paragraph) and it never let up. This is a long-ish book, at over 450 pages, but I never felt bogged down. I just kept turning those pages, reading chapter after chapter, past my bedtime, because I was so entranced.
In addition to style, Waters just has great story-telling abilities. Nancy experiences lots of highs and lows in her life, once she leaves her family’s oyster business to work as a dresser for a young actress in London, and we’re right there with her at every moment. I don’t want to give away any of the story, since I came into it not knowing anything, but trust me: it’s worth the ride. It’s big and sprawling and deliciously underside Victorian. The characters are all interesting and well-developed too; even though Nancy doesn’t always do the right thing, I always cared about her and hoped everything would turn out well.
There you have it-awesome plot, characters, setting, writing style, and some sex scenes thrown in for good measure. What more could you possibly ask for? I think lots people would really enjoy this book; at its heart, it’s a story about growing up and finding true love. And isn’t that what we all want?
Oh-I almost forgot to mention this, but I was surprised and excited to discover that many of the characters are lesbians, cross-dressers, or both. I’ve been wanting to incorporate some GLBQT books into my reading, and this was a great place to start. I’d never really thought about historical lesbians, especially Victorian ones, but Waters portrays a wide range of women who handle their lives and sexuality in all sorts of ways. And while I’m straight, Nancy’s journey into her sexuality just seemed very realistic to me. So of course, I was curious about whether Waters herself was a lesbian, and it turns out she is. I really like this quote from an interview with AfterEllen.com, because it rings very true for Tipping the Velvet:
I’m writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It’s right there at the heart of the books. And it’s both at the heart of the books and yet it’s also incidental, because that’s how it is in my life, and that’s how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn’t it? It’s sort of just there in your life. So I feel it makes absolute sense to call me a lesbian writer, but at the same time I’m just a writer.
Oh, and in case you’re curious, the phrase “tipping the velvet” was Victorian slang for c*nninglingus. Learn something new every day, right?
It was the hair, I think, which drew me the most. If I had ever seen women with hair as short as hers, it was because they had spent time in hospital or prison; or because they were mad. They could never have looked like Kitty Butler. Her hair fitted her head like a little cap that had been sewn, just for her, by some nimble-fingered milliner. …She looked, I suppose, like a very pretty boy, for her face was a perfect oval, and her eyes were large and dark at the lashes, and her lips were rosy and full. Her figure, too, was boy-like and slender-yet rounded, vaguely but unmistakably, at the bosom, the stomach, and the hips, in a way no real oy’s ever was; and her shoes, I noticed after a moment, had two-inch heels to them. But she strode like a boy, and stood like one, with her feet far apart and her hands thrust carelessly into her trouser pockets, and her head at an arrogant angle, at the very front of the stage; and when she sang, her voice was a boy’s voice-sweet and terribly true.
I might have been Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I was about to drown.