Book review: “The Paying Guests”

The Paying GuestsMy summer fiction binge continues, this time with The Paying Guests, last year’s offering from novelist Sarah Waters.

Set in 1922, The Paying Guests centers on the character of Frances Wray, a woman in her twenties who lives in a stately manor house outside of London with her mother, Mrs. Wray. The Wrays are in a bad way; Frances’ two brothers died on the Western Front, and when her father followed them he left behind a mountain of debt. Reluctantly, Frances decides the only way what’s left of her family can hold on to the house is to take on boarders; and so the Wrays are introduced to Leonard and Lilian Barber, a middle-class couple who lack the Wrays’ pedigree but do not lack cash. As Frances adjusts to living with her paying guests, a forbidden attraction is sparked; and following that attraction leads her down a dark, frightening, and terribly uncertain path.

I’m going to tell you my opinion of The Paying Guests, but if you want a TL;DR version the opinion of the book Stephen King posted on Twitter more or less sums it up:

The Paying Guests is a very, very good book. In fact, it’s the best novel I’ve read in quite some time. It manages to be so many things at once: a keenly observed character study; a taut, tense thriller; a work of historical fiction that vividly captures the moment in which it is set. Books that hit one of those marks are rare enough, but to write one that hits all three — and does so seemingly effortlessly, as if for Ms. Waters scoring that kind of hat trick is no big thing — is a startling achievement.

Let’s talk in more detail about The Paying Guests as character study. Waters has a keen eye for the telling detail, and simply by deploying a few of those in just the right places, she quickly establishes in our minds who Frances Wray is, what she wants, and what she fears. Her portrait is painted not with broad strokes, but with fine, fine lines that weave together until to our surprise we realize we can’t see the lines anymore.

If Frances’ experiences have a through-line, it is suffering. Her family, as noted above, was blown apart by the Great War. Class anxiety presses in on her as her slide down the social scale accelerates. She’s an unmarried woman approaching the end of her twenties in a time when to be that was seen as a deep personal failure.

But, we quickly start to realize — Waters is too smart to just tell us this up front, choosing instead to let us figure it out as we listen to Frances’ thoughts — there’s also something else, some deeper wound that somehow connects all the other tragedies of her life together. Frances is, we realize, a lesbian. (To reveal this is the most minor of spoilers; The Paying Guests has much bigger surprises in store.) And this element of her personality, which in our time would be utterly unremarkable, was of course seen very differently in 1920s England. So it has forced her, in her past, to make painful decisions — decisions whose consequences still haunt her.

It’s easy to imagine a dozen ways a character like this could go wrong; could spin off the road into cliché or stereotype. Waters is deft enough to avoid them all. Frances has suffered, but she is also resilient, and while she struggles with self-pity it never defines her. She tries to hide her sexual orientation from polite society, but when in the company of those she trusts is capable of addressing it frankly and without shame. She seems resigned to the idea that she can never be truly happy, but then…

But then she meets Lilian Barber, and the book bursts into flame.

I won’t go into the details here — those would be real spoilers! — but suffice it to say that Waters demonstrates both how to write sex scenes that boil and how to take a plot you thought was going in one direction and wrench it shockingly into another. If you read my review of Gone Girl, you may remember how frustrated I was with how clumsily that novel handled its big twists. The Paying Guests is everything that Gone Girl is not. It is adroit and clever, it respects the reader’s intelligence, and it knows how to build tension and how to pay it off. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, and it has me simultaneously itching to read Ms. Waters’ other novels and eager to see what story she chooses to tell next.

Want more? Links to all Summer of Fiction book reviews can be found here.



July 10, 2015
1:27 pm

I read this book at your recommendation. I really did enjoy it, and finished it lickety split cos she keeps you engaged, I don’t think I was as enamored as you were.

1) You say Waters “establishes in our minds who Frances Wray is, what she wants, and what she fears” but I disagree. I never felt like I really knew Frances at all, she could have done anything at any time and I couldn’t have predicted any of it. And nothing she did ever seemed out of character because I couldn’t tell what was in character. It was like Waters told a great story about Frances, but was never really inside her head. Maybe that was the point, though.

2) The portion of the book dedicated to the trial went on for so long, it lost its sense of drama. And why so much time spent describing the various courthouses?

3) Was it really that unmanageable to keep up a house and cook meals in 1920s England that a woman and her mother, neither of whom had jobs, couldn’t manage it themselves? God, she acts like her fingers are worked to the bone and the house is never clean even though she works on it bit by bit every day. Or is that just residual laziness from having had servants all her life? Whatever the reason, it made me roll my eyes.

I would still recommend this book, and can agree with you that it’s a good one, though. It’s got a lot of high points and is unique in that I’ve never read a piece of historical fiction that featured a homosexual central character. It was a narrative point of view that I appreciated.

Jason Lefkowitz

July 13, 2015
12:00 pm

Good points! My thoughts…

1) I took that vagueness as a way of telling us that Frances was kind of drifting through life — that she was shellshocked and numb from all the losses she had suffered, and her attraction to Lilian jolted her into waking up. But that’s just my interpretation, I can see how it could read otherwise.

3) Two things here: first, remember that those old English country houses were big, rambling places. Imagine having to keep Downton Abbey clean all by yourself!

Second, her attitude had more to do with class than with anything else. Cleaning was just not something that a person in Frances’ position would ever have expected to have to do. It was lower-class work, servants’ work. Doing it meant accepting that she had come down in the world, that her status was gone. So I didn’t read her complaints as being so much about the work itself (though that was part of it, for sure) as it was about the turn of events that had led her to have to do it at all. Even if it had only been dusting a doorknob, it would still have felt as oppressive to her.

You can argue about the justice of that attitude — the flaming socialist in me has always hated aristocratic pretension, so I would happily tell her to lighten up. (This ruined Downton Abbey for me; every time the show wanted me to weep for the family’s lost grandeur, I was cheering for them to get knocked down another peg.) But it’s definitely accurate to the way people in Frances’ class reacted to their downward mobility after WW1. They took it like the world was turning upside down.


July 20, 2015
9:21 am

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. What I think I like best is that we have to guess what Lilian’s next move will be. I think she is a fledgling femme fatale. Sign me up for a next book.

Ginger – I think the descriptions of the buildings were vital, as they were nearly characters in the story themselves. They solidify what a person’s station in life is.I also understand your feelings about the housework, what I think would help with a modern reader would be a better description of how difficult, messy, and time consuming it is to heat a large space entirely with fireplaces. I used a woodstove in my little house for 6 years and it was a pain (the first winter after I had the hv/ac installed, I didn’t fire it up once, I was so sick of it). I can’t imagine maintaining a rambling house full of them.

Now I need to get my bookclub to read it so I can discuss it over a few beers. Or you guys could just head out here 🙂 missy