The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters

Friday, March 02, 2018

How far would you be willing to go for a forbidden love? That is the question that Frances Wray must answer in Sarah Water's novel The Paying Guests. The time is post-WWI London, and the
streets are full of returned servicemen with no jobs and no prospects. Things haven't exactly been great for the genteel classes, either. The deprivation of the war years has left some well-to-do families with little money left to support their large houses and estates. Such is the case for Frances and her mother. When her father died, he left them in such financial distress that they were forced to take on lodgers to maintain their home.

Enter Lillian and Leonard Barber, a young newly-married couple just starting out. They rent the small sitting/bedroom area on the second floor across the hall from Frances' own room. Leonard is brash and charming, at first. Lillian is a modern young woman with eccentric tastes who soon becomes something of an obsession for Frances. As their orderly life is disrupted by the new arrivals, Frances' mother becomes more and more frail and depressed. Frances, on the other hand, finds herself falling in love with Lillian, a feeling which is soon reciprocated. This love affair sparks a series of events worthy of any melodrama, resulting in death. In the aftermath, Frances and Lillian will be tested. Will they find a way for their love to survive?

If you are familiar with Waters' work, you know that all of her novels are period pieces, usually set in England between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Like her novels Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, The Paying Guests does an excellent job portraying post-WWI England. Waters explores themes of class as well as sexuality in this book, contrasting the stuffy, uptight Wray house with the lively home where Lillian's family resides. Waters plays with the prejudices of the time in both her description of Frances' sexual orientation and the way the aftermath of the death plays out. Frances' character experiences the loneliness and social isolation that come from being different, and from having lost social standing due to her reduced circumstances. She is desperate for someone to love her as she is, and this causes her to act in ways that are desperate and out of character. Waters' has created a tragic love story that is doomed, even before it's begun.

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