I’d never heard of Sarah Waters until very recently, and now I’m astonished that this enormously talented woman-centered author wasn’t already a favorite of mine! Now that I’ve read one book, I’m sure to read more by her.
The Paying Guests almost feels like three novels in one. It takes place over the course of several months in 1922 near London, with the same characters, but the book’s feel shifts from a light domestic drama to something much more intense and dark as the novel progresses. The plot of the novel takes a long time to get going, yet I was interested enough in the characters and their minor conflicts to keep reading. At about 200 pages, the plane is ready and fueled, and the story takes off.
The novel starts as a married couple arrive to live in rented rooms at the decaying home of Frances Wray and her mother. Frances is a single woman who frets about cleaning and cooking. But soon it comes out that she is not single by choice: she has given up her woman lover because the relationship upset her mother. She befriends Lilian, the wife. Their growing closeness is the subject of the first part of the book. In the second part, Frances and Lilian find themselves in a complicated situation and face a moral dilemma. The third part involves the consequences of their decision.
In an essay in The Guardian, Waters states that the novel is about “the negotiations that must be made by a passionate relationship as it braves the tangle of courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, splendid ambition and awful misjudgment that constitutes ordinary life.” Waters succeeds in making 1922 feel “ordinary” – details of post-World War I life in London are worked in naturally, and I hardly felt I was reading a historical novel, so convincing was the setting. She also succeeds in making both Frances and Lilian ordinary in a complex, nuanced way. Their actions are believable and understandable given the situations they find themselves in.
My only complaint is that although the novel is over 500 pages long, when I got to the end I did not think the story had been resolved. I felt as if Lilian and Frances still had big decisions ahead of them. But perhaps that was by design: it is left to the reader to speculate on what they will do next, given what we know of their personalities and situations in life.