AfterEllen.com Book Club #1: Let’s Talk About “Tipping the Velvet”

First of all, thank you, thank you, thank you, all you good people for already making the AfterEllen.com Book Club a success. I’ve loved following along on the Goodreads group all month, and I’ve marked down everyone’s ideas for future titles or general ideas for the club. You literature enthusiasts are swell. Now let’s get right to it and discuss this super gay book: Sarah WatersTipping the Velvet.

As per the book club guidelines I laid out in my introductory post, I’m going to bust out some questions right now for us all to talk about, but if you think they’re stupid or if they hurt your head, feel free to comment with any general comments or thoughts beating in your brain, even if it’s just “I loved this thing!,” or “Why does everyone love this book so much? It was dumb.” That said, I speak from experience that people take Book Love personally, so let’s be honest while still being mindful of all of our Book Emotions, because Book Emotions are serious.

1) One of the best parts about this novel isn’t just Nancy’s sexual discoveries, but her experimentation and self-discoveries pertaining to gender. Her life as a cross-dresser seems as important, and as wonderful, as her life as a tom. What parts of the book along this theme did you enjoy most or find most fascinating?

2) Something interesting that’s been mentioned a few times in the Goodreads’ group throughout the month is that Nan often isn’t a very likable character for large portions of the novel. Do you agree? Disagree? In either case, do you think the likability of a protagonist affects the enjoyability, or quality, of reading a book?

3) Kitty: Love her or hate her?

4) Oysters: Gross or not gross?

5) Nancy goes through many distinct relationships throughout the intense journey of her life. Which lover of hers was your favorite? I feel like it must be obvious who everyone’s least favorite was, but then again, maybe not. Which side character — and there were quite a few quirky ones through all the different places she lived — was your favorite? Best sex scene? Team Flo for the ending, or no? (So that was more than one question. Oops.)

While I could bog down this post with all of my own thoughts about these questions, I want to leave it mainly up to you. My most lasting impressions from this book did have to do with all the marvelous commentaries on gender, perhaps because coming into this book having no idea what it was about, I was most surprised, pleasantly, to see this aspect. I kept reaching for my pen to underline or mark passages, such as:

“I think she was never quite sure if I were a girl come to her house to pull on a pair of trousers, or a boy arrived to change out of his frock. Sometimes, I was not sure myself.” [p. 195]

And a few pages afterwards, when she sees the sign in the window advertising the room at Mrs. Milne and Gracie’s, seeking a “Fe-Male Lodger,” Nancy says:

“But there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male. I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.” [p. 211]

The hyphen! That glorious hyphen where so many of us lie!

What I found specifically interesting, to backtrack in time through the novel to the beginning of the Kitty affair, was the intertwining of Nancy’s sexual and gender explorations, together — how she would feel more aroused simply putting on a pair of pants, or watching Kitty putting on a pair of pants. Yet the attraction was sustained when she observed Kitty in ladylike things, as well, if perhaps in a slightly different, slightly shifted way. Her desire for Kitty never left, it just seemed enhanced and molded by gender, a theme continued throughout the novel. So often gender and sexuality are contained in two separate boxes, for very good reasons, but sometimes those boxes can open up and get knocked over, resulting in all the contents jumbling together. Tipping the Velvet to me seems to be a celebration of the multitudes that can be contained within each of us, told through the way we dress, the way we have sex, the way we cut our hair, and how it all ends up to be neither one thing or the other, but the messy-but-right amalgam that is us.

Also, oysters: ew, right?

To finish off the first month of the AfterEllen.com Book Club, I thought we’d also have one last Tipping the Velvet hurrah by doing a group watch-along of the movie. I’m heading out of town later this week, a fact I legitimately keep forgetting is happening — where, oh where, did September go? — but will be back on Monday. How do you feel about joining me in a week to kick away those Monday blues by making your evening real gay? This should give people enough time to acquire a copy of the movie if they want to join in, as well.

I know, of course, that coordinating a watch-along event when we all live in completely different time zones is difficult and unfair, so I apologize to anyone it leaves out. But I will be turning on my DVD player and cracking my Tweeting knuckles on Monday, October 1 at 7:00 PM PST/10:00 PM EST, commentating @daffodilly with the hashtag #TipThatVelvet. Let me know if you’ll be joining me!

But back to the more important part: the book. Give me your feelings!

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