Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is a character-driven novel that explores six years of Nancy's new adult life as a lesbian in 1880s England.
Although Nancy narrates in past tense, she presents her experiences like she felt them--we only understand her feelings by descriptions of how she felt her throat tighten or her heart beat out of her chest. It's a leisurely paced novel that follows her experiences closely, skipping weeks or months only when she falls into a routine that would pass in one's memory similarly quickly. As Nancy takes in surroundings as she moves to drastically different situations after leaving home for London, readers get all the details of her environment and personal (often sexual) understanding of herself. Nancy is sympathetic but flawed and inadvertently cruel to other people in her life at times. The other characters are all presented through her experiential lens, so they are generally only of temporary interest and not always entirely fleshed out for the reader.
Settings are evoked with rich, descriptive detail--the oyster restaurant/shabby home in which Nancy grew up on the Kentish coastline, London theater life, the poor and filthy Dead Meat Market neighborhood with blood literally running in the streets, wealthy "Sapphist" lady society, burgeoning Socialism and outreach to exploited workers. The language is fairly nondescript, save the evocative use of period vocabulary ("tom"-a derogatory term for a lesbian, "trousers," "gay girls"-prostitutes, "spit black"-eye makeup).
The tone is difficult for me to identify because it changes so much throughout Nancy's story. Overall, I suppose it's nostalgic, a little sad, exciting, feelings of discovery and understanding. Storyline elements include sex (and it's not shy, so this isn't for anyone who is squeamish about gay lovin'), theater, outward appearances vs. reality, coming of age, self-discovery, youthful journey, harsh reality, class differences, discrimination.
Although I read these two books as a teen and don't have a great memory, when trying to come up with readalikes I'd look at Emma Donoghue (I read Slammerkin, although What Should I Read Next? recommends Life Mask) and Lisa Carey (I read The Mermaids Singing and distinctly remember it as one of those youthful "whoa sex!" moments). Maybe Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban, if a little more literary flair or lyrical style doesn't bother you. Other ideas? And tell me if I'm off base because I'm really reaching here!