I really wanted to like this book, and for the first half of the story, I was gripped. Then, following a tense, dramatic confrontation, all momentum seemed to fade. I was left feeling not a little underwhelmed. Perhaps the substantial size of this novel had an effect – in my opinion, a good 100 pages could be easily removed without affecting the story too much.
Before I explore this further, let’s take a look at what the novel is about.
Frances Wray and her mother, living in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Champion Hill, have been struggling to stay financially afloat for some time. The war, as well as costing Frances’ brothers their lives, has had untold effects on the nation’s economy. Add to that Frances’ fathers spending most of their wealth on worthless ‘antiques’, leaving nothing but debts for his wife and daughter upon his death, and it’s little wonder that the two women are concerned.
Their least favoured option is now their reality: they are opening up their home to paying lodgers. The young couple they have chosen, Leonard and Lillian Barber, seem nice enough, though they are definitely not the sort of people one usually found living in Champion Hill. Mr. Barber works for an insurance broker, while Lillian Barber stays at home, no longer expected to work in her step-father’s shop.
Frances, who manages everything in the house from the finances to the cleaning, begins to experience great appreciation for the hours that she and Lillian are alone together during the day.
However, knowing that the Barber’s marriage is just one of many obstacles to expressing her growing affection, can Frances bear to remain living in such close quarters with Lillian?
This really wasn’t a bad book by any means. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I thought the first half was great. Characters were introduced well, exploring their personalities while leaving hints about potential secrets. Waters’ writing is rich, layered, and effortlessly accessible, and there was wry humour alongside the increasing intrigue. These aspects slotted together wonderfully, moving at a good pace towards a crescendo halfway through the novel.
“She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments.”
The depiction of Frances was a particular highlight in these initial chapters. She’s not always likeable or completely ‘moral’ (not that these are bad qualities, I just often find that characters with flaws are more interesting), yet Frances is the character I was most invested in.
In many ways, she is a character defined by loss: her brothers; her father; her inheritance; her first love; her youthful, fighting spirit. In her late twenties, she senses the need to take opportunities that she wants. Not only does society tell her (and all women) that they are most ‘valuable’ before they are 30, but Frances has already let opportunities for happiness pass her by, which causes her much regret.
The dilemma she faces regarding her romantic relationships is presented in heartbreaking detail. Openly declaring her love for women would more than likely require her to live apart from her mother, who makes no effort to hide the disapproval of Frances’ sexuality that she shares with their community. She remains loyal to her mother in spite of this, and yet she yearns for freedom from her current existence; yearns for the time when she will no longer have to deny a part of herself. I felt all of Frances’ pain and conflict, demonstrating Waters’ skill for poignant, nuanced characterisation.
I enjoyed the forays we took away from Champion Hill: into Central London to visit Frances’ former lover; to the homes of Lillian’s relatives. It added colour and vibrancy to the novel, especially with regards to presenting women in various domestic and professional spaces. The post-war era in which this novel is set marked a significant step in changing concepts of gender and a woman’s place in society, and Waters explores some aspects of this in The Paying Guests. The contrast between Frances and Lillian is notable: Frances, the “well-bred woman doing the work of a char”; Lillian, the shopkeeper’s daughter, collecting trinkets and extravagant garb.
The dramatic peak at the novel’s mid-point was thrilling. It was something I half-expected to happen, but it remained shocking nonetheless. Every character involved was both a victim and a ‘villain’, creating further tension for me as a reader. The dialogue in this section was sharp, fast-paced, and led to a climactic moment that took my breath away.
Unfortunately, this is where the novel seemed to lose its power. The elements were all there to create a dark, unsettling atmosphere but something was just ‘off’ about the execution in the second half of the book. The intention was perhaps to contrast the calm, regulated environment of Champion Hill (and the Wray’s home) with the horrors that eventually take place, the domestic setting becoming claustrophobic rather than comforting. However, the repetitive nature of the scenes seemed to drain the narrative of its momentum rather than create a sense of entrapment and isolation. As chapters are so long in The Paying Guests, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the motivation to read on.
I must also say that I wasn’t particularly fond of the eventual denouement of the novel: let’s just say, I didn’t get a sense of justice, poetic or otherwise. In spite of the repetitive scenes that preceded it, I still believed that it was building to another dramatic climax, but instead, all the tension seemed to fizzle out. It just seemed odd, and I was rather disappointed by it.
Apart from Frances, none of the other characters drew my attention for long: Lillian, Leonard, and Mrs Wray each had their own ‘defining’ moments, but they didn’t seem as fleshed out as Frances did. The post-war setting, though interesting as the time period where rigid concepts and structures were being interrogated and unravelled, failed to provide some of the intrinsic unpredictability and darkness that I feel would have elevated this novel’s general structure. All of these aspects combined resulted in a less enjoyable reading experience of a Waters novel than I’m used to.
The Paying Guests has excellent moments, and some of the themes and characters are fantastic. As always, Waters’ prose is beautifully crafted (I mentioned how much it moved me here in Words of the Week #2). However, the last section of the book let it down for me: it just felt far too long and repetitive. The individual building blocks of the story are decent, but I think they could have been put together better.
Thanks so much for reading my review!
Have you read The Paying Guests? What did you think of it? Are you a Sarah Waters fan?
*The Paying Guests, written by Sarah Waters, was published by Virago Press, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, in 2014