– SPOILER FREE REVIEW –
Title: Tipping the Velvet
Author: Sarah Waters
Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Romance
Release date: May 1st, 2000
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Nan King, an oyster girl, is captivated by the music hall phenomenon Kitty Butler, a male impersonator extraordinaire treading the boards in Canterbury. Through a friend at the box office, Nan manages to visit all her shows and finally meet her heroine. Soon after, she becomes Kitty’s dresser and the two head for the bright lights of Leicester Square where they begin a glittering career as music-hall stars in an all-singing and dancing double act. At the same time, behind closed doors, they admit their attraction to each other and their affair begins.
This book is the story of a woman trying to find herself and a place to belong, with many victories and defeats along the way. I loved that it’s one of those novels you can’t stop reading because the writing envelopes you, the plot is always moving, and the setting feels like a character itself. My only complaint and the reason I gave it four stars and not five is that the formula used throughout the book was predictable. It followed a cycle of discovery – prosperity – failure that you come to expect and that took away some of its magic. But overall, it’s an excellent read with many great themes and unexpected characters.
As I said, the story is about Nancy’s journey so she is the main focus and each character that is introduced brings out a new side of her. What’s funny is I never particularly loved her, but I did enjoy reading about her. She was brave, but naive. She made terrible choices that made me want to scream at her, but she was smart enough to know how to get back on the right path. So you see, she had her faults and her strengths, which made her a well-rounded character. I admired how she explored gender identity and expression as well as her sexuality with curiosity, passion and honesty, always staying true to herself.
After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that discontent us with out pasts and offer us new futures.
The other characters were very distinct and they all had a clear role to play in Nancy’s growth, but they weren’t mere plot devices. For example, Kitty and Diana had their own personalities and you understood them, but what ultimately made them stand out for me was their effect on Nancy. Florence was probably my favorite character of the novel. I loved how giving, kind and passionate she was. Nancy’s family wasn’t explored that much, which was something I didn’t like. The strain in their relationship after she leaves home was very disappointing and I expected it to be more important than it actually was.
We were girls with curious histories – girls with pasts like boxes with ill-fitting lids.
The plot started off a little slow, but when it finally picked up I couldn’t stop reading. Nancy gets herself in interesting and surprising situations, to say the least! My favorite part about the book was getting to know the different sides of London – the theater life, the renters, the high-society lesbians, the working class. I could picture it all perfectly.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot follows a formula that repeats itself and it’s predictable, but I still found myself entranced by the story. The writing definitely helped the fast pacing the book had. It was fantastic and I thought it had a superb balance between descriptions, insightful monologues, dialogues and plot driven scenes.
But all performers dress to suit their stages, I recalled. And what a stage was this – and what an audience!
Sarah Waters is known for her sex scenes, which made me wary, but I was glad to find they were not gratuitous, as Nancy’s sexuality is one of the biggest themes in the novel as part of her self-discovery. They are indicative of her level of maturity, her expectations and her feelings. Some of the other themes included were betrayal, independence, family, acceptance, and the buzz of socialism and feminism in that particular historical setting. I loved that each theme had its time to shine in different moments of the story. They weren’t forced into the plot, but rather flowed effortlessly from the setting and characters.
They walked together, and the world smiled to see it! They embraced on the street, and strangers were glad! While all the times I lived pale as a worm, cast out from pleasure, from comfort and ease.
I must say that even though at first I didn’t think much of this book, it ended up growing on me. As the plot moved along and characters were introduced, I started appreciating the themes and seeing Nancy grow. I loved the writing and how perfectly balanced it was, it was neither too simple nor too flowery. Although not everything was perfect, Nancy’s journey and the themes of the novel against the backdrop of Victorian London definitely stood out for me and made this a great read.