It's not often that I like a book, so listen up and listen well.
If someone had given me the bare bones outline of Tipping the Velvet and suggest I read it, I'd have kindly told them to piss off. I have a job, a kid to raise, and an already low tolerance for contemporary fiction. A book about cross-dressing lesbians in Victorian England wouldn't spark enough interest in me to get past the title page.
Silly me. Good thing I thought that "tipping the velvet" was a reference to the theater (hint: it's not) and mistakenly believed I was buying a book about East End actresses. This mistake was a blessing, and this novel renewed my faith in modern fiction.
Tipping the Velvet carries a variety of themes that have bored me since my first Women's Studies classes in college: identity, cross-dressing, gender roles, and sexuality. Yet, alongside these nearly foreign concepts were the universal themes found in all great works of literature: passion, lust, betrayal, scandal, violence, redemption, and love. So, what did it leave me with? A book that shot a breath of life into all of those tired old themes. A book I couldn't put down, and not just for the positively raunchy (and at times touching) sex scenes that had me blushing to my hairline. No. What kept me hooked was the astoundingly good writing:
When describing being backstage at the theater after a performance, "I caught a glimpse of ladders and ropes and trailing gas-pipes; of boys in caps and aprons, wheeling baskets, manoeuvring lights. I had the sensation then - and I felt it again in the years that followed, every time I made a similar trip back stage - that I had stepped into the workings of a giant clock, stepped through the elegant casing to the dusty, greasy, restless machinery that lay, all hidden from the common eye, behind it."
When telling us about a dirty mirror, we're told that the "small looking glass [was] as cloudy and as speckled as the back of an old man's hand."
When discussing the ways of her tyrannical lover: "There is a way rich people have of saying 'What?' The word is honed, and has a point put on it; it comes out of their mouths like a dagger coming out of a sheath. That is how Diana said it now, in that dim corridor. I felt it pierce me through, and make me sag. I swallowed."
Yeah. Writing like that will keep you up at night.
The hot sex scenes? The bizarre gender roles that previously would have left me uninterested? The story itself? All just added bonuses. This chick could write about paint drying and make it fascinating. She makes cross-dressing, hooking, and other >ahem< "unmentionables" ;) seem completely exciting, alive, and blessedly normal. I love it.
Finally. A work of fiction that doesn't suck or make me feel like I've gotten dumber by the time I've finished it.