I borrowed Sarah Waters’s newest novel The Paying Guests from a coworker of mine who said she hadn’t been able to put it down, and even though I got interrupted while reading it—I spent a month in Asia and couldn’t bring the big hardcover along—I, too, didn’t want to stop reading.
Sarah Waters is an amazing writer. I always call her “lesbian Dickens” because she writes stories that read like super-gay Dickensian novels, full of twists and peculiar characters. So as someone who loves Dickens and all things gay, she’s up there pretty high on my Favorite Authors List. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I highly recommend her Lambda Award-winning novel Fingersmith.)
So, The Paying Guests. It takes place in England soon after the end of World War I. At the center of the novel is Frances Wray, a thirty-something woman scraping by with her mother in their big, old house. They decide to take in boarders to help with their dire financial situation, which is where the novel begins: the arrival of married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber.
Of course, I knew right away that Frances, who to her mother’s dismay used to have a female companion, was going to fall for Lilian—and she does, hard, in the pantry (how scandalous). The two begin conducting a passionate affair in hallways and bedrooms and Lilian’s upstairs living room, all behind old Mrs. Wray’s and dear Leonard’s backs.
As one may expect, as Lilian becomes more attached to Frances, it comes to light that her marriage to Leonard is less than happy. (Why else would you sleep with your landlady?) It turns out that Lilian has a couple secrets, of course. And when Frances grows so bold as to suggest that Lilian leave Leonard and begin a life with her, Lilian agrees–and then it happens.
Obviously, I won’t tell you what “it” is, but “it” is an unexpected twist that throws the plot up on its head and sends it sprinting off in an entirely different direction. I was so shocked that I shouted about it to my girlfriend (to whom I’d been periodically giving plot updates while reading) as soon as it happened. It’s intense. Like Frances and Lilian, I didn’t see it coming.
I loved this book. The characters are rather unlikable, which I actually like, because it makes them more real and makes me question what I don’t like about them. They’re interesting women. They make bad decisions and do the wrong thing. Sarah Waters is so good at writing complex emotions and unsettling human interactions. I felt so anxious while reading that at times I had to put the book down for a few hours. (I really appreciate feeling things—even discomfort—while reading.)
My only negative observation is that the book at times seems too long, too detailed—in my opinion, she could’ve cut 75 pages out of the second half without sacrificing the quality of the story. All in all, though, this is a solid Sarah Waters novel and a wild read.