*This is my first review since revising my review process. If you'd like to see why I decided to change the format, please click here.*
Nancy Astley is a young woman who grows up working in her parent's Oyster House in 1880's Whitstable- a small harbour town in Kent, England. When her sister Alice begins dating a boy whose Uncle is the Canterbury Palace Manager, the sisters embark on nightly adventures to the Music Hall. Nancy quickly falls in love with the glamor and atmosphere, but mostly attends for the thrilling performances of one Kitty Butler. This is a novel about her coming to terms with her sexuality, dealing with changing family relationships, first love, the highs and lows of show business, and ultimately trying to find happiness after major life setbacks.
I was looking forward to reading Water's debut novel since completing Fingersmith and loving her writing style and storytelling ability. Waters is great at depicting lesbian characters, and brings nuance and feeling to an area that was lacking in fiction. She also lavishly explains the theater experience and joy of entertainment. I love Victorian settings, and she is masterful at bringing them to life.
I appreciate her openings to stories...in this one, she provides basic info on the main character through a series of questions (hypothetically posed to an outsider who might have visited her restaurant when she was young): "Do you remember the bulging sign that hung above the door, that said that Astley's Oysters, the Best in Kent were to be had within?....Can you recall the chequered cloths?....Were you served by a girl with a rosy cheek, and a saucy manner, and curls?" The author is also great at foreshadowing without giving specifics away: "I should have remembered this, later" or "I could not know soon we would collide, nor how dramatically." I adore her writing.
However, while I was sucked along because of the prose and descriptions, I hated the story. It felt like a cycle of porn, sadness, and desperation. The main character realistically resorts to common destructive behaviors, but never seemed to have redeeming value. I felt little empathy for Nancy and her plight, and thus wanted the story to end. It made me squeamish and often repulsed, which made me feel a bit prudish. I feel I've read rougher content, but the disturbing transformation in this is just jarring. This was simply not my bag, but I'm sure it has it's audience. Waters is immensely gifted, so I will continue with her other works- this was just not my cup of tea in any way.