Author: Waters, Sarah (Author’s Website)
Genre: Historical fiction, crime fiction, LGBTQ fiction
Bibliographic: Riverhead Books, 582 pages, Paperback List Price $17.00, Audiobook List Price $28.04, ISBNs 9781573222037, 9781573229722, 9781860498831, 9781101057025
Publication Date: October 1, 2002
Rating: ★★★☆☆/♥♥♥♥♡ (The rating scale is here).
Appeal Factors: Books to TV, first person, Gothic, literary fiction, multiple perspectives, character-driven, intricately plotted, atmospheric, suspenseful, descriptive
Why I picked it up: A close friend told me it was one of her favorite books and I needed to read it ASAP.
S.I.A.S.: Susan Trinder is going to pull a con on Maud Lilly, but there’s too much information she doesn’t know.
Summary: Susan Trinder has always known that her mother was hanged as a murderess, but she’s never lacked for care. She grew up on Lant Street in the house of a woman named Mrs. Sucksby, who has quite a few business interests: she sells infants, if their mothers don’t want them, or she and her partner, Mr. Ibbs, can take the marks off of stolen items and resell them at a good profit. Susan has always been given special status in the house, as Mrs. Sucksby’s favorite. She’s never been hit, never had a run-in with the police, never been allowed to do any truly unpleasant chores.
One night, there is a knock on the door of the Lant Street house. The caller is a man named Richard Rivers, or maybe Richard Wells, although the residents of the house just call him “Gentleman,” due to his supposed connection to the upper classes. He has recently taken a job in a country house called Briar, and sees a great opportunity. Aside from the servants, Briar has two inhabitants: an old man named Mr. Lilly, and his niece Maud. Maud is set to come into a great fortune — £15,000 — upon her marriage. Gentleman wants Sue to go to Briar to serve as a lady’s maid to Maud, so that he can seduce Maud into marrying him. Once they are married and Gentleman controls Maud’s fortune, he will have her committed to an insane asylum, and Sue will be given £3,000 for her trouble. Once they get to Briar, however, Sue finds herself harboring feelings towards Maud that will make it difficult to double-cross her.
That’s just the first third of the book. To tell any more would be to take away from the shocking twists that continue to keep the rest of the narrative going.
Evaluation: I enjoyed this book a good deal less than I expected to, although I think that’s entirely due to my particular circumstance. A good friend told me that it was one of her favorite books, and I think we have slightly different tastes. Someone else told me that this was a “Victorian lesbian murder mystery,” which is right up my alley and also not what this book is. It’s set in Victorian England, there are lesbians, and there is a murder — but the murder happens with less than 100 pages left to go (in a 500+ page book) and is very much not the point. I would recommend this book, certainly, but I would make sure that people reading it know what they’re in for: it’s a crime novel, and I think that the frequent comparisons to Dickens it receives are apt (at least in setting), but it isn’t really about a murder.
The characters were fantastic, especially Gentleman — I really, really hated him by the end of the book, which is rare for me. The only element of characterization I didn’t quite believe in was the love between Sue and Maud. I knew going into the story that they were going to sleep together at the very least, and it felt sort of forced, to me. On the flipside, though, the (platonic) love between Mrs. Sucksby and either girl was entirely believable. I was absolutely shocked at the end of part one, although after that I was less surprised by the twists than I would have liked to be. I kept wondering when the next reversal was going to happen.
Significance: This book is very popular, and was made into a BBC miniseries in 2005.
- Which of the novel’s many plot twists did you find most shocking? Why?
- Why does Maud’s uncle insist that she dress the way she does? Why does he make her wear gloves? What do these gloves come to symbolize, for Maud and for Sue?
- Why are Dr. Christie and Nurse Spiller so unwilling to believe that Sue might not be Mrs. Rivers? Why is Nurse Spiller so cruel to Sue?
- How to Maud and Sue come to feel for each other? How are their feelings in contrast with the lesbianism depicted in Mr. Lilly’s library?
- Why does Mrs. Sucksby confess and allow herself to be hanged? Do you believe she really committed the murder?
Lists and Awards: Dagger Awards: CWA Endeavor Historical Dagger. Lambda Literary Awards: Lesbian Fiction. New York Times Notable Books — Fiction and Poetry (2002). Man Booker Prize Nominee (2002). Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2002).