By the end of World War I Frances Wray has lost almost everyone in her life she cares about—her two brothers to the war, her father to a heart attack, and the person she loves to the circumstances brought about by so much death and change. She and her mother are left with a grand old house but no money, as her father lost it all in bad investments before his death. It is Frances who decides to rent out part of their house to lodgers, in order to keep from selling it and becoming homeless. The Paying Guests is Sarah Waters’ novel about the changes the Wray’s experience as they open their home to a young couple from a social class far different from their own.
Lilian and Leonard Barber bring an unexpected vitality and a dose of unease to the house as they bump and crowd their way in. For Mrs. Wray, a polite smile and a hasty retreat to her room are as much as she can muster. For Frances, these people, unusual in her genteel world, are intriguing and off-putting. Lilian draws her in with her showy, feminine exuberance while Leonard’s sly humor feels as if he is making fun of her. It is only as time passes that relationships shift and the lines between tenant and landlord blur. What started as a business arrangement becomes something far more inflammatory and unmanageable.
…Frances felt a rush of the abandonment that had overwhelmed her a few nights before. The feeling was like a wailing infant suddenly thrust into her arms: she didn’t want it, couldn’t calm it, had nowhere to set it down.
There is no doubt about Waters’ ability to vividly recreate time and place as well as the intricacies of human emotion but in The Paying Guests this skill leads to a slowing of the plot I found very hard to manage. The difficulty of Frances’ situation and the conflict created by her intense emotions and desires make for rich reading but in a novel over 550 pages long it can be hard to sustain continued attention. However, when the plot does return it is substantial and generates enough momentum to enhance the existing, heightened emotions on all sides. It just may be, that what was scandalous in the 1920s, despite being handled with delicacy and Waters’ thoughtful prose, may fall flat to present day readers.
Sarah Waters will be reading from The Paying Guests at The Elliott Bay Book Company tomorrow night, September 23rd, at 7:00pm.