The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

22061527Fiction — Kindle edition.  Riverhead, 2014. 568 pgs. Purchased.

In the aftermath of World War I, twenty-six year old Frances Wray and her mother are obliged to take in paying guests — a more polite term for lodgers that allows Mrs. Wray and the neighbors to ignore the family’s rather spectacular tumble in social standing. Their room for rent notice is answered by a young, married couple from the “clerk class” named Lilian and Leonard Barber, and the Wrays and Barber have to adjust to rubbing elbows with members of different social classes.

Frances may be uncomfortable with soliciting the rent check every two weeks, but she is far more willing to face the realities of life in 1922 than her mother is. And she has found cleaning and cooking for her mother helps keep her mind from dwelling on the hatred she feels towards her deceased father for leaving her and her mother in this position, on the what ifs in life.

The one person she is unable to stop thinking about, though, is Mrs. Barber, and  as the two grow closer, each of them ends up confessing a secret about themselves that society would shame them over. For Lili, it’s her shotgun wedding; for Frances, it’s the love affair she had with another woman during the war. These secrets tie the two women together, and the two of them become engaged in three criminal affairs of their own — one of the heart, one of self-preservation from an unhappy marriage, and one of homicide.

The lead-in to this novel lasts about an hundred pages and could have done with some serious editing. The minuet descriptions of cleaning and household drudgery became a chore (pun intended), and I likely would have set the novel aside had it not been the March selection for my book club.

Yet this all changed when the novel shifts from the first part — a more typical novel of historical fiction — to the second part, which is something more akin to a lesbian romance novel. That shift threw the story and the characters into unexpected and unexplored territory. A very sit up and take notice moment for me to kept me intrigued as the novel metamorphosed again into a crime thriller in the third part.

The three sections are tied together through the atmospheric and melancholic tone of Waters’ writing, which became one of my favorite aspects of the novel once the plot began to progress. It adds an air of mystery and darkness to the novel that particularly works perfectly in the last section as Frances has to reconcile the Lili of her mind with the realities before her.

And while the slow pace, the attention to detail was the source of much consternation from my fellow book clubbers but, as the novel progressed, it became clear that this reflected the state of mind of Waters’ protagonist. Frances has to pay attention to every situation and every point of view in order to keep her sexuality a secret, and neither woman is inclined to instigate something illegal in the eyes of the law.

What that illegal activity is, though, depends on the point of view of each woman, and Waters’ exploration of morality within this novel is fascinating. I would side with one woman, turn on her, and then change my mind all over again. And the beauty of Waters’ writing, of this story is that it keeps Frances and Lili from ever feeling truly exonerated in the eyes of both the law and the reader.

It may have taken me awhile to slip into this novel, but I am glad I persevered through those rough, first hundred pages. Even if no one else my book club could say the same.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters | Ardent Reader

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