Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This is the third in a trilogy of historical fiction I’ve been reading. And by “trilogy” I mean “three historical fiction books I borrowed at the same time from the library but otherwise they have no relation to each other, and one is The Serpent of Venice so techically it’s not historical fiction, just madness”. It hasn’t been the most satisfying experience. The slightly ahistorical The Serpent of Venice was definitely the best of the lot. The Miniaturist was disappointing. The Paying Guests is … maybe at another time I would have liked it more, because it isn’t bad, but I couldn’t get into it this time.
Let me start with some praise: I loved the opening of the book, in which Sarah Waters establishes the setting of a post-war London still incredibly uncertain about its shifting mores and class structure. The Paying Guests is contemporaneous with The Great Gatsy and demonstrates the differences in atmosphere between New York of 1922 and London of 1922. The First World War, in addition to its horrific death toll, shattered notions of class boundaries in England. Frances Wray and her mother were “well off”, but the combination of Frances’ father’s death and debts along with their servants leaving for better work during the War means they have to take lodgers to get by.
Waters reminds us that this is not our time. They have an outdoor WC instead of an indoor flush toilet (ewwww). Water, gas, electricity prices are quite high, so these things we view as utilities are more luxuries. Frances is constantly cleaning, scrubbing, and cooking, allowing herself little time. Compare this to how I waste most of my free time watching videos on the Internet … well, things were a lot different back then. I like how Mrs. Wray occasionally criticizes the changing times by harkening back to the good ol’ days of Victorian morals and mores. Waters manages to communicate the contemporary unease and even distaste over the broad and dramatic social shift without becoming too judgemental.
This last is crucial to the characterization of Frances and Lilian Barber and their relationship. This isn’t just a story of a forbidden love affair. The obstacles that Frances and Lilian would have to overcome to be free and together are nearly insurmountable compared to a man leaving his wife for another woman. It’s not just the practicalities of such a separation or the overt disapproval some people profess for homosexuality. There’s an entire cultural apparatus in place in which people (and especially women) are pressured to remain in unhealthy relationships (read: marriages) to preserve social cohesion. That apparatus still exists today, but the march of individualism and civil rights has altered it.
So there’s something to be said that Frances and Lilian were even considering running away together. But then there are complications, of course. I foresaw the affair, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal way in which Waters introduces more conflict by killing off Len. Suddenly The Paying Guests shifts from a heartbreaking romance to a much darker story of guilt and recrimination.
Unfortunately, the more Waters explores the depths of Lilian and Frances’ commitment to each other and the secret of Len’s death, the less convinced I was of their relationship. It’s not the relationship itself I take issue with so much as the interaction between Lilian and Frances. Waters doesn’t manage to make me believe that there is any more to their attraction than the fact that both are unhappy in their current situations. And maybe that is the case—maybe that’s exactly what is happening. But then why do they manage to conspire so successfully to hide the truth behind Len’s death?
My other complaint is that Len’s death overshadows all that comes before. Until that point, there was a certain amount of tension merely in watching Frances and Lilian navigate the uncertainty of their romance. Would Frances’ mother find out? How is this going to affect the Barbers’ status as lodgers? This might not be a fair complaint, but that’s why book reviews are subjective!
I guess my problem with The Paying Guests isn’t that it’s a bad book. It jut didn’t follow the path my brain told me it should. Sometimes that’s a good thing and results in an impressive, original experience. Sometimes, as in this case, it makes the book harder to enjoy. As a story, this works fine. But it’s not the story I hoped to get from this. That’s not Waters’ fault, but it means I can’t necessarily be enthusiastic about this book.
As far as historical fiction goes, this is definitely better than The Miniaturist and certainly more accurate than The Serpent of Venice. It’s not the book of the three I enjoyed the most, but enjoyment does not always correspond directly to appreciation. I respect what Waters has created here, even if it isn’t exactly what I was looking for.