Book review: “The Paying Guests”
My 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:
Finishing THE PAYING GUESTS, by Sarah Waters. Awesome full-bodied novel. It's like she's saying, "Hey, dudes, this is how you do it."
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) January 6, 2015
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.