|The Paying Guests
4 / 5
"The Barbers had said they would arrive by three."
A truly extraordinary, masterful novel of brilliant storytelling, sensuality, and psychological suspense set in post-WWI London, from the internationally bestselling author of The Little Stranger. Three-time Booker Prize finalist Sarah Waters is at the height of her powers.
A psychological and dramatic tour de force from beloved international bestseller Sarah Waters. The year is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. In South London, in a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances are obliged to take in lodgers.
With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, the routines of the house and the lives of its inhabitants will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far, and how devastatingly, the disturbances will reach.
Waters proves once again that her eye for the telling details of class and character that draw people together as well as tear them apart is second to none in this masterpiece of psychological tension and emotional depth.
I had to kind of rush my way through this book a little bit, because it was an ebook I borrowed from the library and thus available for only a limited time (and because it's currently in high demand, there's no way I could have gotten it out again for quite some time). So! I had to go quickly. Did I mind? Not at all! The story carried me along, especially the trial - I was kept on the edge of my seat almost the entire last third of the book. Whew! Boy, did that book make me THINK. For one thing, I couldn't figure out who I was rooting for: why did I care that the murderers got away with their crime? But I kind of wanted them to! That was a first odd thought. Then, later, I realized I didn't really LIKE any of the characters in the book - and usually I am drawn in by one or another, by caring about what happens to them. Not so with Frances, or Lillian, or Leonard! Don't get me wrong: I did really like some of the characters in that they were interesting, but not so much the characters' characters - you know what I mean?
In any case, wow - you just have to read this book. So much to think about! I should point out that there are some graphically intimate scenes, so definitely a more adult book. But nothing really untoward, or at least I didn't think so. The story focuses tightly on the main character, Frances, who is a committed (albeit young) spinster in postwar (WWI, that is) London. Women have just gotten the vote, but that's about the extent of things - inequality and repression still abound, and that is part of what this book explores. Frances becomes quite close with the new lodgers who move into her and her mother's house; since they have been left without any men after losing the three in their family to the war, they must find income to pay off some unexpected debts. This means the introduction of the eponymous "paying guests," which was a term used by polite society of the time to refer to the vulgar idea of tenants. I suppose the title is a great one, too, because the "guests" named paid in more ways than one, ultimately. And it seemed to be a particularly tense situation to begin with, as Frances' family is much more well off, in terms of social class, than the Barbers, who move in. To have to - for all intents and purposes - beg money from those who are of a lower class? It must have been unbearable to contemplate at the time. But an unlikely friendship is established between the families, and I loved seeing that.
What I liked most about this book, though, was its real examination of homosexuality in 1920s England - while we think things are still unequal here and now, back then it was many more times difficult to be a lesbian. The inability to express one's love in public, and having to do everything clandestinely, is a very interesting idea to explore: I've often seen the story told as a barrier between social classes, but never as a barrier due to gender.
There is just SO MUCH to discuss after reading this book; I don't even think I'm doing it justice. I wish I had a book club to talk this one over with, whew! Please let me know if you read it, Reader, so we can have a good talk!
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