Note: A copy of The Paying Guests was made available to me by the publisher for review consideration.
YOU GUYS. The Paying Guests is so great! Sarah Waters hasn’t released a new book since 2009, and The Paying Guests was worth every day of the wait. It is about an upper-class woman called Frances who is living in reduced circumstances in interwar London. To keep themselves afloat, Frances and her mother have decided to take in lodgers (paying guests): A married couple, Len and Lilian Barber, who belong to “the clerk class”. Events unfold from there.
Frances is such a good character! At first I thought she was going to be your standard missish Victorian-throwback dutiful daughter girl, but then:
Frances knew the look very well — she was bored to death with it, in fact — because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbors, of tradesmen, and of her mother’s friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in human history, yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char. She said breezily, “You remember my saying about us not having help? I really meant it, you see. The only thing I draw the line at is laundry; most of that still gets sent out. But everything else, I take care of. The ‘brights,’ the ‘roughs’ — yes, I’ve all the lingo!”
and I was immediately all in on Frances. One of my long-term self-improvement projects is to care less about what other people think of me, and I accomplish this by acting like I don’t care what people think of me and by telling embarrassing things in tones of perfect frankness. So I am very admiring of people (in fiction and in life!) who can be brave in that way.
The first two parts of The Paying Guests are as close to perfect as anything I’ve read this year. Waters builds up the relationship between Frances and Lilian with care and delicacy, so that when they finally come together, it feels both joyful and inevitable. The tension between their feelings for each other and the life situations that forbid those feelings is terrific. There’s a gorgeous scene in which Lilian (the less experienced of the two in being with ladies) comes up with a surprise for Frances that lets the two of them be, briefly, as open about their affection for each other as they wish.
Nowhere else in the world, thought Frances, could they have been together so publicly, holding onto each other like this. It wasn’t at all like making love. It was a lark, pure, childish. And yet it was like making love: the thrill and intimacy of it, the never letting go of each other, the clutching of fingers and the bumping of thighs, the racing and matching of heartbeats and breaths.
Then there is an Event.
I am of two minds. As I was reading, I had no problem with the Event. I have a high tolerance for soapy plot twists, probably as a result of early exposure to The Scarlet Pimpernel and the plotline on Guiding Light where Reva is missing, presumed dead, and instead of grieving her and moving on like a normal person, Josh has her cloned. But when Aarti texted me to register an objection to the soapiness of the Event, I had to admit that point was valid. There’s a jarring tonal shift from the [gentle music metaphor] of Frances’s and Lilian’s courtship and character development to the [noisy music metaphor] of the Event and its aftermath. (I don’t know that much about different styles of music, but I chose not to let that gap in knowledge derail my metaphor train.)
In the end, I learned to stop worrying and love the Event. If it seems an unlikely shift from what came before it, Sarah Waters nevertheless puts it to work to produce some genuinely lovely character payoffs. Like Frances, we find ourselves questioning Lilian’s integrity, her investment in her marriage, her honesty with Frances about what she felt and when she felt it; and then with a single line of dialogue, Lilian takes Frances absolutely apart. Confession: I identified with Frances really a lot, and the thing Lilian says to her just devastated me. Ugh Sarah Waters. Why are you so good at being a writer?
Okay! Time for you — whether you are a Sarah Waters fan or a Sarah Waters newbie — to read The Paying Guests! Don’t forget to stop back by here and tell me what you thought of it. Did you find the Event too Eventy? Do you have suggestions to finish off my musical metaphor?
Cover report: At last, a book with different American and British covers! It feels like it’s been so long since that happened. Since I can’t decide which is better (both are not great), I have made a poll. Vote please!