Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
That Sarah Waters is a fantastic writer is apparent from her debut novel. Tipping the Velvet paints a vivid portrait of Victorian London and those living on the perimeter of its society. At the outset, teenage protagonist Nancy Astley is a fishmonger in coastal Whitstable, working in the family oyster parlor, content with her life and her lot. Then, during a routine trip to the music hall, Nancy encounters the enigmatic Kitty Butler.
A male impersonator with her eyes on stardom, Kitty draws Nancy like a moth to a flame. Nancy goes to the hall night after night (spending all her savings on train fare) just to see Kitty's performance. When they finally meet, the two become fast friends and when Kitty departs for an engagement in London, Nancy joins her as her dresser. The two become lovers, Nancy joins the act and soon she has completely immersed herself in the life of celebrity and of a closeted "tom". When Kitty betrays her, Nancy feels she has lost everything. She takes to the streets and begins a whole other education.
Chronicling the most most tumultuous years of Nancy's life, Tipping the Velvet is the story of her road to discovery. While that story is compelling, parts of it that are downright depressing. There are times when both Nancy and the reader despair of things ever working out for her. Of course, in the end, it does in a most unexpected way.