The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters ★★★★⅓
Edition: Penguin Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 21h28
Original publication date: 2014-09-16
London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances’s two brothers were killed in the war, her father’s death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter with debts to pay. They’ve had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they’ve decided to take on paying guests; the word “lodgers” will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They’ve arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber’s quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn’t exactly to Frances’s liking. Frances is dismayed by all this; she has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-companion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber’s arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.
For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women’s domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it’s residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won’t reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.
I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson’s impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can’t say I’m overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one, as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.