LitStack Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

by Sharon Browning
The Paying GuestsPaying Guests
Sarah Waters
Riverhead Books
Release Date:  September 16, 2014
ISBN 978-1-59463-311-9

Sarah Waters is known for her historical depictions of Victorian and war time life and women who lived surrogate lives within their confines.  Yet her works have been said to defy easy labels such as “costume dramas” or “lesbian literature”.  Author of five previous novels, she has been nominated for the Man Booker prize three times, for Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009).  This year, The Paying Guests is on the shortlist for the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Fiction.

Ms. Waters certainly can evoke an atmosphere both accessible and subtly archaic.  Here is a passage from The Paying Guests, set in post-World War I London:

She loved these walks through London.  She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged.  Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner:  it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets.  She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments – these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.  But it was the anonymity that did it.  She never felt the electric charge when she walked through London with someone at her side.  She never felt the excitement that she felt now, seeing the fall of the shadow of a railing across a set of worn steps.  Was it foolish, to feel like that about the shadow of a railing?  Was it whimsy?  She hated whimsy.  But it only became whimsy when she tried to put it into words.  If she allowed herself to simply feel it… There.  It was like being a string, and being plucked, giving out the single, pure note that one was made for.  How odd, that no one else could hear it!  If I were to die today, she thought, and someone were to think over my life, they’d never know that moments like this, here on the Horseferry Road, between a Baptist chapel and a tobacconist’s, were the truest things in it.

These words are spoken by the main character, Frances, a twenty six year old unmarried woman whose place in society has dropped due to the war and the loss of all the men of her family who gave them station.  She lives with her mother in the family house on genteel Champion Hill, but finances have caused them to let go all their servants and hired help, and to sell off some of the finer furnishings.  Frances doesn’t mind taking on the housework and the cooking, but it causes her mother no little distress, seeing her daughter on her knees with her hair bound up in a kerchief, scrubbing the floors.  That still wasn’t enough to keep up with the bills, though, so mother and daughter have been forced into taking in boarders, more politely known as “paying guests”.

These “guests” are a young couple, Mr and Mrs Barber, married three years; Leonard works in an insurance office, Lillian is soft and charming and has a somewhat delicate air to her.  As the days pass, even while Frances has to sidestep Lenard’s somewhat suggestive glances, she is drawn to Lillian who is colorful and sweet, yet lonely; there is not much love in the marriage and very little respect given from Mr. Barker to his wife.  Eventually the attraction between Frances and Lillian develops into an affair, for Frances is unmarried by choice – she has no interest in men, and has known what it’s like to be madly in love with another woman.  Hiding their relationship is difficult and fraught with despair as well as elation, but one day their world spirals out of control and any feelings they may have for each other are pushed aside as both women must deal with matters that have deadly consequences, for themselves and for those around them.

I wanted to like this book, I really did.  Ms. Waters has a strong and lovely writer’s voice and she handles her potentially sensational (and sensual) subject matter with decency and delicacy, staying firmly focused on Frances’ s thoughts and feelings.  The author’s knowledge of London, and of social mores and historical authenticity is commendable in its detail and fluidity.

But I simply couldn’t warm up to The Paying Guests.  I found Frances to be a difficult heroine to embrace, and eventually just stopped trying.  On one hand, her practicality, her level headedness and her good sense were admirable.  It was easy to appreciate her strength and unwillingness to mourn for a loss of tradition in a world where so much was changing.  Yet in a heartbeat she allowed herself to be smitten, to be willing to sacrifice not only her propriety but the propriety and security of others around her – others she appeared to care little for even as she embraced them and even protected them – for a passion that seemed to arise out of nowhere, with barely any encouragement.  While I would not champion Frances taking on the mantle of spinsterhood – I actually was intrigued by reading of an avowed lesbian of this era – the relationship that she had with Lillian had too much of the infatuation about it, and not enough of a mature, loving relationship that could redeem the decisions made.  The relationship between the two women, especially when there would be an unwitting triangle involving Leonard, felt disingenuous, shallow, even contrived.  The doubts that arose later in the narrative were doubts that I had harbored for a long time.

Once I became unconvinced about the emotional honesty of Frances’s character, then the book simply dragged for me.  What might have been exquisite detail instead became slow and petty, even irritating.  While the story did keep a forward momentum, and very little could be taken for granted, I simply had lost interest and finished the book merely to have it done with.

To be fair, I’m one of the few out there who have taken exception to The Paying Guests.  I did check out what others had said about the book, and although reviews were a bit less glowing about The Paying Guests than other works by Ms. Waters, most of them were quite complimentary, with some calling it a “masterpiece”; Elizabeth Hand of the Los Angeles Times even said it was “one of the best novels of suspense since Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’”.

So maybe it’s just me.  Maybe this time I totally missed the mark, but I have to be honest and say that I would not be able to recommend The Paying Guests unless the reader was into historical drama with a twist.  Or even perhaps without the twist  – I do readily endorse Ms. Water’s skill as a writer.  This simply was not the book for me.

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