The Paying Guests

Paying GuestsSarah 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.

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13 Responses to The Paying Guests

  1. Tamsin says:

    Sarah Waters is one of those authors I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read. Honestly, it’s a little strange that I haven’t, since she does so much in the Victorian period, which is totally my area. Once you mentioned that her novels typically feature plot twists, though, I was sold–I’m constantly looking for a book that will really surprise me, so I’ll definitely have to look into getting something by her.

  2. Same here; I’ve never read Sarah Waters before, though I’ve eyed her novels while perusing the bookstore on occasion. I’ve never felt compelled to pick one up, mainly because I just have too many books already, so that’s hardly her fault I’m a bookish pack rat. But I’m curious to try her out. Do you recommend starting with her early work, or would any one do?

    • Teresa says:

      Fingersmith is probably the best place to start. It’s the one people seem to like best (including me). I started with The Little Stranger, which was great for me, but I know a lot of people didn’t like it. It probably depends on how much you want your questions answered–The Little Stranger doesn’t answer many questions overtly. It and Fingersmith are my two favorites.

  3. Alex says:

    Sarah Waters Lite was the feeling I came away from this book with, but then I have never been a great fan. I felt at the end of the book that she had written herself into a corner where she either had to leave things as they were or write another 600 pages.

    • Teresa says:

      I actually would have liked it to end just a little earlier, after the trial but before Frances and Lilian meet up again, leaving things hanging more or giving some hints of uncertainty. I just wasn’t convinced their romance was more than infatuation, which affects my reading of the ending.

  4. Deb says:

    I always feel that Waters writes 3/4 of a terrific novel and then things sort of peter out in the last quarter. I read somewhere that she says she often begins writing without knowing how the story is going to end–and I think it shows. I think her most successful book is The Night Watch, in part because it is told backwards and, thus, she ended at the beginning. Nonetheless, I’ll be reading her new book because three-quarters of a great book from her is better than a huge number of new books out there.

    • Teresa says:

      The first Sarah Waters book I read was The Little Stranger, and it was the last couple of paragraphs that completely won me over to it, but it may be an exception as far as her endings go. I’ll have to think about that. With this book, I was just expecting it to head in a different direction than it did, which may say more about me than about the book.

      And I get what you’re saying about 3/4 of a great book being better than most books, There are several authors, like Waters, about whom I think that their worst books are better than most other books. This is not going to be among my favorite Waters books–I can’t decide whether I liked it more or less than Affinity–but I’d certainly recommend it to people who like 1920s romance, courtroom drama, or crime, just as I’d recommend Affinity to anyone who enjoys Victorian ghost stories or books about spiritualism.

  5. What I loved about the unfolding of the second half of the novel was the way it took apart not only what Frances thought she knew about Lilian, but also what she thought she knew about herself. It’s not as dramatic a series of revelations as we get in Fingersmith, for instance, but it’s very fascinating in its own way.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked that about it too. And we never actually find out the answer regarding how far she’d go. I wonder now if that why Waters had things turn out as they did at the trial–to leave readers with that bit of doubt. Maybe Frances’s moment of despair at the end comes from her knowing deep-down what the answer is and not liking it.

  6. Pingback: Sonntagsleserin – September 2014 | buchpost

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