To call Fingersmith a lesbian love story is a disservice on many levels. Never mind that the novel is full of titillation (pun intended): there is hot lesbian reasonably graphic passion; a disturbing lesbian gang rape scene; hate-fueled love rants; and plenty of murder. But this is far more than a love story and (for the straight squeamish) the lesbian element is almost beside the point: it is ultimately a novel of crime and resentment and making deals with oneself. It is a novel of class. It entails a patient development of plot, and yet has two narrators who cover precisely the same territory, but somehow tell two entirely different stories. Waters manages to deploy minor characters to great effect: apparent throwaways become important at subsequent times. (I tried not to take offense that the primary villain is a gay man.)
In a nutshell, the story spans generations. A mother of the gentry arrives at the doorstep of a baby-marketing, fencing household in the darker neighborhoods of mid-19th century London. She gives birth, only to have her family track her down. Making a deal with the proprietor of the household, the mother causes her child (Susan) to be raised among the thieves and the child of the thieves (Maud) to be taken away to be raised among the gentry. Years later, in search of fortune, Susan is dispatched to trick Maud into yielding her fortune by marrying her to the gay rascal "Gentleman" aka Richard Rivers. What Susan doesn't realize is that Maud has her own trickery afoot. What follows is a ride through dark country nights and criminal clergy, madhouses and evil doctors. The tables turned on her, Susan is locked away, while the lady Maud, raised among gentry, takes Susan's place on London's streets. Hatred alone can't keep Maud and Susan apart, but it takes a murder to truly bring them together.