The Paying Guests is a gorgeous, tense, and haunting book. Like Sarah Waters’ other historical fiction, it seems perfectly and naturally detailed, unobtrusively steeped in major and minor details of the time in which it takes place. In this case, with the setting of a London suburb in the early 1920s, there are references to the small difficulties of a post-War life that is both modern and traditional: people travel by tram, for instance, while women still wear corsets and stays. The details never distract from the plot or the people. Instead, everything seems very real.
The “guests” of the title are a specific couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, the first to rent rooms in the home of Frances Wray and her mother. The Wrays have lost family and money since World War I, and Frances takes on the Barbers as tenants for financial reasons. Mrs. Wray is rather ineffectual and old-fashioned; Frances takes care of her and their home, while being forced to act as though their status remains unchanged.
The Wrays’ world is small, and the Barbers help to extend it—for Frances, at least. She soon makes friends with the younger, beautiful Lilian; in contrast, she finds Leonard off-putting, almost dangerous. The narrative starts off and moves slowly. However, its payoffs are worthwhile, from the love affair that develops between Lilian and Frances to the shocking crime whose results immediately, and then continually, threaten their relationship. The crime and its aftermath dominate the second half of the book, as the ardor and excitement from the beginning of the plot give way to guilt and despair.
From Frances’ perspective (and the reader’s too, I think), Lilian’s adultery is understandable, even necessary; its unexpected ramifications are shocking. The women’s choices take them both into new territory with uncertain, frightening consequences. I was tempted to read as quickly as possible to find out what was going to happen: how Leonard would react to Lilian’s affair, whether Lilian would survive an abortion, whether the wrong culprit would be punished, and how the other characters would react. Most of all, I wondered if Frances and Lilian would be able to achieve what they saw as their “fantasy” of a life together.
While not quite as jaw-dropping in its unfolding of events as the twisting plot of Fingersmith (my favorite Waters book), The Paying Guests fits right beside it: it is full of satisfying turns and nervous tension, with a moving love story between two women at its heart.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Riverhead. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.