Fingersmith is a 19th century term for a pickpocket. Our heroine, orphaned Sue Trinder, is such a person and lives in a seedy street in London with a household of various theives, baby farmers and generally suspicious types. At the start of the novel, a plot is proposed to Sue, ‘Gentleman’ is trying to seduce and marry the wealthy niece of an isolated and academic old man in order to secure her fortune. Sue is employed as her maid to help convince her to marry Gentleman and to help deposit her in an asylum before splitting the profits. So Sue makes her way to Briar, a country house in the middle of nowhere to work as a maid for Maud Lilly.
Needless to say, in a story of Victorian thievery and Dickensian names, all is not quite as it seems. To give away any details though would spoil the cleverness of Waters writing and story construction. The story wends its way through country houses, asylums and back to the seedy London underbelly. The end of both Part 1 and Part 2 left me with my jaw literally hanging open with where Waters was taking us. I would advise you not to try and work anything out though and just go with it, make the discoveries as Waters reveals them and you will enjoy the novel all the more for it. The climax of the novel was exciting, tense, triumphant and melancholy by turns although I won't give away what order they happen in.
Whilst I really enjoyed reading Fingersmith, I can't say that I loved it. It was fast paced and very readable but I struggled to find the heart in it personally, although I think this is an uncommon problem with it. Whilst I got very involved in the story and finding out what was going to happen, I wasn't really rooting for one person except in a vague 'clearly who we're supposed to be rooting for' sense. The romance element I didn't particularly buy into as it feels like it was based on false pretences and assumptions. I found some of the seedier undercurrents a little unpleasant - I don't want to give it away but a secondary character is revealed to have a habit that is not what it seemed and personally I just felt it was a bit grim and unpalatable - but that's personal preference and sensibilities I'm fairly sure it won't bother a lot of people.
Waters does write well, she conjures up the settings very evocatively. I had to stop eating my lunch at a description of the Victorian backstreets Sue grew up in as the descriptions made me feel rather nauseous. The time that a character spends at the asylum has a really effective air of claustrophobia and panic. It's probably also worth mentioning that there is a fair amount of adult content including a sex scene related from two different perspectives - it is nothing particularly scandalous but is definitely written for an adult audience.
The novel is wonderfully realised and created and I would definitely recommend it for a exciting and evocative read. With all its twists and turns, I think it's a book to be discussed more fully with someone else who has read it so you can revel in all its surprises.