Fingersmith

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Overview

From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Tipping the Velvet and the award-winning Affinity: a spellbinding, twisting tale of a great swindle, of fortunes and hearts won and lost, set in Victorian London among a family of thieves.

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby's household, with its fussy babies ...
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Overview

From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Tipping the Velvet and the award-winning Affinity: a spellbinding, twisting tale of a great swindle, of fortunes and hearts won and lost, set in Victorian London among a family of thieves.

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby's household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves-fingersmiths-for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives-Gentleman, a somewhat elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud's vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be left to live out her days in a mental hospital. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways . . . . But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and surprises.

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "consummate skill" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.

Author Biography: Sarah Waters is the author of the novels Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, for which she won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, a Ferro-Grumley Award, and an American Library Association Award.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize.
2002 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, Lesbian Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In Victorian London, the orphaned Sue Trinder is raised by Mrs. Sucksby, den mother to a family of thieves, or "fingersmiths." To repay Mrs. Sucksby's kindness, Sue gets involved in a scam but soon regrets it. From the award-winning author of Tipping the Velvet. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine a university-educated lesbian Charles Dickens with a similarly keen eye for mendacity and melodrama, and you'll have some idea of the pleasures lurking in Waters's impudent revisionist historicals: Tipping the Velvet (1999), Affinity (2000), and now this richly woven tale of duplicity, passion, and lots of other good stuff. It begins as the narrative of 17-year-old Susan Trinder, an orphan resident of the criminal domicile run by Hogarthian Grace Sucksby, a Fagin-like "farmer" of discarded infants and den-mother to an extended family of "fingersmiths" (i.e., pickpockets) and assorted confidence-persons. One of the latter, Richard Rivers (a.k.a. "Gentleman"), engages Susan in an elaborate plot to fleece wealthy old Mr. Lilly, a connoisseur of rare books-as lady's maid "Susan Smith" to Lilly's niece and ward Maude, a "simple, natural" innocent who will be married off to "Mr. Rivers," then disposed of in a madhouse, while the conspirators share her wealth. Maidservant and mistress grow unexpectedly close, until Gentleman's real plan-a surprise no reader will see coming-leads to a retelling of events we've just witnessed, from a second viewpoint-which reveals the truth about Mr. Lilly's bibliomania, and discloses to a second heroine that "Your life was not the life that you were meant to live." (Misdirections and reversals are essential components of Waters's brilliant plot, which must not be given away.) Further intrigues, escapes, and revelations climax when Susan (who has resumed her place as narrator) returns from her bizarre ordeal to Mrs. Sucksby's welcoming den of iniquity, and a final twist of the knife precipitates another crime and its punishment, astonishing discoveriesabout both Maude and Susan (among others), and a muted reconciliation scene that ingeniously reshapes the conclusion of Dickens's Great Expectations. Nobody writing today surpasses the precocious Waters's virtuosic handling of narrative complexity and thickly textured period detail. This is a marvelous novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573222037
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/31/2002
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is the author of Tipping the Velvet, a New York Times Notable Book; Affinity, which won her the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; Fingersmith and The Night Watch, both of which were shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize; and The Little Stranger, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and a New York Times Notable Book. She has also been named one of Granta's best young British novelists. She lives in London.  

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Read an Excerpt

FINGERSMITH
by Sarah Waters

 

INTRODUCTION

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby's household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, a somewhat elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud's vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be left to live out her days in a mental hospital. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways....But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and surprises.

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "consummate skill" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.

 

ABOUT SARAH WATERS

Sarah Waters, 35, was born in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales, United Kingdom. She studied English Literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, at the universities of Kent and Lancaster. As a student she lived for two years in Whitstable, the sea-side town—famous for its oysters—in which her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, is partly set. In 1988 she moved to London; her first full-time job was in an independent bookshop; later she worked in public libraries. In 1991 she decided to return to postgraduate study, and she spent the next three years writing a PhD thesis, on lesbian and gay historical fiction. She developed a daily writing routine, and a passion for language and composition. She had articles on gender, sexuality and history published in various scholarly journals, including Feminist Review, Journal of the History of Sexuality, and Science as Culture.

But while working on her thesis, and becoming increasingly interested in London life of the nineteenth century, Waters began to conceive the historical novel that would become Tipping the Velvet. With the thesis complete, and supporting herself with bits of teaching and part-time library work, she started to write. The novel was finished in just over a year, and was published in the U.K. by Virago (1998) and in the U.S. by Riverhead (1999).

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in the process of adapting the book into a major series with director Andrew Davies, who also directed the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

By 1991, Waters had already begun her second novel, Affinity. This was completed with help from a London Arts Board New London Writers Award, and appeared in the U.K. in 1999 and in the U.S. in 2000. Waters taught for a time for the Open University, a national educational institution offering undergraduate schooling to mature students from a range of social backgrounds. She has also tutored on creative writing programs. She published articles on literature as recently as 1999, but now devotes herself full time to the writing of fiction. Her third novel, Fingersmith, was completed in 2001, and she is currently at work on her next book. She still lives in London, a city she finds endlessly inspiring; but she dreams, too, of returning to a life by the sea.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. At the start of her story, Sue Trinder claims: "I was Mrs. Sucksby's child, if I was anyone's." Is this true? Why or why not? Might she still make the same claim by the end of her saga?
  2. "Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another," Sue says of Mrs. Sucksby's kitchen (p.10). At Briar, she finds unbearable "two-facedness" on the part of the servants, "all on the dodge in one way or another." (p.83) Compare and contrast the two households. In what ways does each reinforce the activities of its inhabitants?
  3. Deceptive appearances are a recurring theme throughout the novel. Is anything about Maud what it seems to be? What about Gentleman? Mr. Lilly? Why do you think the author chose to come at the story twice, from two separate points of view? Is Sue's perception of the situation more or less "real" than Maud's? Why or why not?
  4. Sue and Maud initially appear to be almost perfect opposites: where Sue's hands are toughened by work, Maud's are smooth and childlike; where Sue is illiterate, Maud does nothing but pore over books. In what ways do the scale and nature of their differences change as the novel progresses? In what ways have they grown alike by the end of their story? How are they different?
  5. Sue and Maud's relationship progresses through many incarnations. Discuss the manifestations of their relationship: how do they fulfill and surpass their roles as villain and victim? Servant and master? Caretaker and dependant? How do their transitions alter their destiny?
  6. What effect has her occupation in her uncle's library had on Maud's psyche? Is she capable of distinguishing between the content of the books and her own sexuality? What does her brutal treatment of Agnes indicate? How has she evolved by the time she returns to Briar at the end of the novel?
  7. Sue's imprisonment in the asylum echoes Maud's incarceration at Lant Street, as well as her earlier situation at Briar. Discuss the ways in which gender and constraint are demonstrated—and challenged—in their respective characters. In what ways is the desire for "rare and sinister liberty" (p. 210) at the heart of both Maud and Sue's actions?
  8. Do you think Sue's recollection of her earliest memory ("I remember seeing...how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr. Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.—I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.") would be altered by her experiences? In spite of all the deceptions she has undergone, does she still regard "good" and "bad" so clearly? Why or why not?
  9. What does this novel ultimately say about the relationship between morality and love?
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Reading Group Guide

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
  1. At the start of her story, Sue Trinder claims: "I was Mrs. Sucksby's child, if I was anyone's." Is this true? Why or why not? Might she still make the same claim by the end of her saga?

  2. "Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another," Sue says of Mrs. Sucksby's kitchen (p.10). At Briar, she finds unbearable "two-facedness" on the part of the servants, "all on the dodge in one way or another." (p.83) Compare and contrast the two households. In what ways does each reinforce the activities of its inhabitants?

  3. Deceptive appearances are a recurring theme throughout the novel. Is anything about Maud what it seems to be? What about Gentleman? Mr. Lilly? Why do you think the author chose to come at the story twice, from two separate points of view? Is Sue's perception of the situation more or less "real" than Maud's? Why or why not?

  4. Sue and Maud initially appear to be almost perfect opposites: where Sue's hands are toughened by work, Maud's are smooth and childlike; where Sue is illiterate, Maud does nothing but pore over books. In what ways do the scale and nature of their differences change as the novel progresses? In what ways have they grown alike by the end of their story? How are they different?

  5. Sue and Maud's relationship progresses through many incarnations. Discuss the manifestations of their relationship: how do they fulfill and surpass their roles as villain and victim? Servant and master? Caretaker and dependant? How do their transitions alter their destiny?

  6. What effect has her occupation in her uncle's library had on Maud's psyche? Is she capable of distinguishing between the content of the books and her own sexuality? What does her brutal treatment of Agnes indicate? How has she evolved by the time she returns to Briar at the end of the novel?

  7. Sue's imprisonment in the asylum echoes Maud's incarceration at Lant Street, as well as her earlier situation at Briar. Discuss the ways in which gender and constraint are demonstrated-and challenged-in their respective characters. In what ways is the desire for "rare and sinister liberty" (p. 210) at the heart of both Maud and Sue's actions?

  8. Do you think Sue's recollection of her earliest memory ("I remember seeing ...how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr. Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.-I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.") would be altered by her experiences? In spite of all the deceptions she has undergone, does she still regard "good" and "bad" so clearly? Why or why not?

  9. What does this novel ultimately say about the relationship between morality and love?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 108 )
Rating Distribution

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(56)

4 Star

(32)

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(10)

2 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 108 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2009

    Fingersmith - Incredible

    This is not a book I would have ever picked up - was looking for ideas that were different and found it in 1001 Books you Should Read (?). It was unbelievable - possibly one of the best books I have read of late. Both the dialogue, descriptions (a part that I frequently skim) and plot twists were amazing. Because I read alot, it is unusual for me to be surprised in a book - at least three different times I was completely caught off guard. I actually slowed down toward the end because I didn't want to stop reading it. I have not only recommended this book to people I have actually bought it for two friends. Definitely a keeper.

    18 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2012

    Creepy Manses. Den of Thieves. Damsels in Distress

    At first, this seemed to be Dickensian. Then the scene changed and "Aha!" I thought. Scary Lord of the house, beautiful maiden isolated from the world. Gothic. Right? Wrong. Yes there are elements of Dickens and of Gothics. It does take place in 19th century England, after all. However, don't think you can guess what happens or how it all turns out. I can usually figure out a plot in 75 pages or less, but not in Fingersmith. I even usually predict what will turn out to be false, but not in Fingersmith. Oh, Mrs. Sucksby how could you! Susan was like your daughter.

    The twists and turns of the plot will keep you engrossed, but Water's writing is excellent too. It is good enough to merit the label "literary fiction." She actually researched thoroughly what she's writing about so you get to know how life was lived then, what it was like to be a woman controlled by men

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

    Let me begin by saying that Fingersmith is the first novel in recent memory to incorporate a plot twist so unexpected and surprising that I actually exclaimed out loud ("I think I said "Holy Crap!" or something equally insightful. Don't judge me. it was a shocking twist.) I love that. For better or worse, I am a very difficult reader to surprise. Fingersmith actually surprised me twice. Set in my very favorite literary time and place, Victorian England, Fingersmith is a tale of intrigue full of memorable characters, an intricate and surprising plot and vivid period detail. It is truly a remarkable book. The novel is divided into three parts: the first tells the story from Sue Trinder's perspective, the second tells the story from Maud Lilly''s perspective and the third finishes out the tale, moving forward from where their stories merge. or diverge, as the case may be.

    Part One is arguably the best storytelling work I've read in recent memory. It is spell-binding and I couldn't put the book down. Part Two is interesting because it is essentially a retelling of Part One from a completely different perspective with the addition of lots of great (and also unexpected) background information on Maud Lilly. Part Three brings the story to fruition. but Part Three is also the reason I dropped the plot rating from 5 to 4.5. once the stories rejoin and the plot moves forward to its conclusion, the novel loses a lot of momentum. Fingersmith is like a thoroughbred. really fast and vastly superior for short distances, but lacking a bit in endurance. Part Three contained a twist or two of its own, but was essentially a waiting game with little by way of new action or intrigue. Or maybe I'm just holding it to the impossibly high standard set forth in Part One.

    Waters does a brilliant job of portraying life in Victorian England - both rural and city life. I'm a bit of a snob about this period. it has to be perfect. And Fingersmith's setting really was perfect. The characters are equally well-developed with a wide variety of personas, all in keeping with Victorian standards and yet each with their own idiosyncrasies and often startling secrets. The premise of the novel is absolutely fresh and thoroughly unique. I can certainly see why Fingersmith put Sarah Waters on the map, so to speak. There is no arguing the talent of an author who writes a book like Fingersmith.

    The Bottom Line: An engrossing and intricately detailed historical novel full of intrigue and unexpected plot twists. A must-read for fans of the genre.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    interesting twists

    I decided to read the book because it was on the list of 1001 books to read before you die...and I'm very glad I did! Just when I thought I had figured out what was going to happen things twisted and surprised me. I will definitely read more by this author.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2008

    A reviewer

    well...this book was wonderfully atmospheric (or maybe i'm just partial to mid-1800s london). it is divided into three parts, and i most enjoyed the first, and its narrator, sue. although the plot became a little convoluted and often dragged, the writing more than made up for the deficiencies.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 17, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Mayhem, Murder and Madness in Victorian London

    Suspense thriller and love story; fair maidens and dastardly villains; country estate and insane asylum; den of thieves and literary purists; murder and mayhem in Victorian London; Sarah Waters manages to blend it all and produce one whale of a story that had me gulping it ravenously into the night, coming up for air only when it was done. One wild caper with more twists and turns than you can imagine.

    The protagonist, Susan Trinder is an orphan child whose only knowledge of her mother is the London gallows she can see from her window where, she is told, her mother was hung, not long after Susan's birth. She is being raised by Mrs. Sucksby, matriarch of a den of thieves, or fingersmiths. As a teenager, Sue agrees to help Mrs. Sucksby and her friend, the wily "Gentleman," in a scheme that will leave all three of them wealthy.

    Maud Lilly lives with her uncle in the country at Briar Estate, where she spends hours assisting him in his library. She may enjoy wealth, but she lives a miserable existence.

    It is the intersection of these two lives that provides the impetus that drives the narrative forward and enables the author to engage the reader in the tangled web that she so cleverly constructs. And clever may be an understatement because just when you think you know where the plot is going, bam, it twists in a completely different direction. Twists, turns, up, down, back around until you finally come to the conclusion. Throughout the process, Waters describes the life and times of Victorian London in the starkest terms possible:

    "At last I wake and do not sleep again. The dark has eased a little. There has been a street-lamp burning, that has lit the threads of the bleached net scarf hung at the window; now it is put out. The light turns filthy pink. The pink gives way, in time, to a sickly yellow. It creeps, and with it creeps sound-softly at first, then rising in a staggering crescendo: crowing cocks, whistles and bells, dogs, shrieking babies, violent calling, coughing, spitting, the tramp of feet, the endless hollow beating of hooves and the grinding of wheels. Up, up, up it comes, out of the throat of London." (Page 367)

    Waters puts you right there in Dickens' London. Wonderful read. Very highly recommended.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2010

    It doesn't get much better than this

    This is perhaps one of the best suspense novels I've read in a long time, and to think I almost put it back on the shelf. I was at first intrigued by the title and book cover, but when I glanced at the jacket and saw that the story was set in 1800's London, I almost put it back. I'm not generally into period pieces as the language can sometimes be stiff and make a story difficult to follow. That is not at all the case with this novel and I was immediately swept up with the intriguing characters (all of them!) and the plot's several layers of deception, which Waters masterfully allows to unfold. This is the first novel I've read by this author, and I will definitely be looking for other books she's written.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 29, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Another great one by Waters

    A story with any twists and turns and worth every page of it. Period pieces are my favorites.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent!

    This is a remarkable book with lots of twists and turns to the plot. A very unique story with well developed characters. I highly recommend it to anyone that appreciates good historical fiction.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 12, 2010

    Fingersmith

    I enjoyed the book very, very much - although the ending was a little disappointing. I had expected it to end differently. This was her first book I read.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2007

    Great book, lots of twists and turns

    This is one of my favorite books and everyone I have recommend it to has loved it. It has so many twists and turns ... and you rarely see them coming.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2014

    Great book

    Fimgersmith is not a book I would usually read, the era is not my style. After reading a few reviews that said wow, can't believe that happened (thank you for the lack of spoiler alerts). It was more than I expected, great story, interesting characters and so much more.

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  • Posted December 20, 2013

    Really good; interesting take on a common plot

    We've all read or seen movies where the hit man falls in love with his target. That is the basic story here.

    The interesting thing about it is that it takes place in Victorian England and the subtlety with which the love develops. It is not hitting you over the head. It takes its time developing and, in my view, really shows how female-female love can develop more out of friendship than anything else.

    I recommend this book. Good for a nightly read with some hot chocolate during the winter months.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2013

    must read

    I really enjoyed this book. Characters were well developed. It is well written. An epilogue would have been nice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2013

    Whoa...

    I was warned of plot twists. This is the first time I was truly thrown by a book. I'm SO happy I bought it!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2013

    Great

    great

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  • Posted May 13, 2013

    Fingersmith was a very unusual book. It is not the kind of book

    Fingersmith was a very unusual book. It is not the kind of book I usually read. I enjoyed the first part of the book more than the latter part. It is well written and interesting. I didn't feel any connection with the characters, however. This is my first Sarah Waters book, and I intend to read Night Watch next.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2013

    This book was wonderful. I really has a lot of twist and turn t

    This book was wonderful. I really has a lot of twist and turn that I never was expecting. Recommend this book to everyone.

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  • Posted March 10, 2013

    This is an amazing book. The fact that she uses different story

    This is an amazing book. The fact that she uses different story telling perspectives to have the readers truly understand their intentions and feelings is a unique breather. I thoroughly enjoyed this book , I could not put it down and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good lesbian novel to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2013

    Wanted it to end

    I was disappointed in this book. There were interesting turns and twists but the book was too long and drawn out. I found myself skipping the long paragraphs of description. I was ready for it to end!

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