Sarah Waters is one of a handful of authors whose books I will always read, and she’s not so prolific that it’s impossible to keep up. I’ve been looking forward to her new book, The Paying Guests, since its publication was announced. It didn’t even matter what it was about. I’m always excited about a Sarah Waters novel. The book was published last week in the U.K., but we’ve got a couple more weeks to wait in the U.S., where it’s being published September 16. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and my birthday present to myself this past weekend was to spend a day reading it.
Set in 1922, this novel is the story of Frances Wray, a spinster who lives with her mother trying to keep up their large London home now that the men in their previously well-to-do family have all died. To earn some extra money, they decide to rent out some of their rooms to a young couple of the clerk class, Leonard and Lilian Barber. Almost as soon as the new tenants arise, tension begins to build. At first, the two families must struggle to figure out how to share space. When should they engage in small talk, and when should they ignore one another? How close are they supposed to be? The class differences add to the complications, as old-fashioned Mrs. Wray doesn’t entirely approve of the Barbers, especially Lillian, whose decorations are altogether too fanciful and housekeeping habits too slovenly. Frances, who has few friends aside from her former lover, Christina, is drawn to Lilian.
Waters excels at tension, and the story spins out slowly, with the first half of the novel depicting a building romance as Frances and Lilian get to know each other. There are misunderstandings and fears, but the two women cannot deny their growing passion. Frances finds herself hoping that she can find a way to build the life with Lilian that she gave up with Christina when her family found out about their relationship. Lilian’s marriage is an obstacle, and so is Frances’s mother, but they begin making plans and looking for a way through to happiness.
Around the mid-point of the novel, the story changes direction, turning into a crime and courtroom drama. An unplanned confrontation leads to a violent tragedy, and the two women must adjust their plans to protect themselves, always hoping that they will find a way through to the other side. Yet the path to their future seems to require that someone else be sacrificed, and neither women says she wants that.
This last half of the book felt at times like a Barbara Vine novel, which is a tremendous compliment coming from me. The tension here is plot-related: What will happen? Will their secret be discovered? Will the guilty pay? But it’s also character-related: Can Frances really trust Lilian? Can Frances even trust herself? The courtroom scenes in particular are loaded with consequence as Frances watches the police build the case they want to build. Certain people are obviously guilty; there’s no need to look further. The press is more interested in a story of sex and scandal, yet they’re blind to the story that’s right there in front of them.
Many of Waters’ books involve some sort of revelation or ambiguous elements. You don’t always know what’s happening when reading Sarah Waters. The Paying Guests is more straightforward than that. There are times when I wasn’t sure what a character was going to do and what certain characters thought, and there were some secrets revealed as the book went on, but there’s no big twist or huge unanswered question. The mysteries and tensions that drive the book are those of the human heart. What does love look like? How can we do right in a world that’s against us? What will we do to be happy? Lots of fiction explores these kinds of stories, and Waters does it well here. But readers who are looking for her trademark twisty plots might come away disappointed.
I’m not sure myself how I feel about the end. It’s not the ending I expected, but if I were reading another writer, I might have loved it immediately. In fact, it might be the very best ending for this book. This might be a case where the least risky ending is the riskiest one of all.