Monday, 7 March 2016

Review | The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

by Sarah Waters

My Rating: 

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the 'clerk class', the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

At this point I think it's no secret that I'm a fan of Sarah Waters' work. Having already read four of her novels I thought the next book I picked up would be The Night Watch, but something about The Paying Guests, her most recent novel, was calling to me despite not hearing rave reviews about it.

The Paying Guests is set in London in 1922, where Frances Wray and her widowed mother have had to take on lodgers - or 'paying guests' - to support themselves after Frances's father died and it was discovered he hadn't done a spectacular job with the family's finances. They rent out their upstairs rooms to Lilian and Leonard Barber, and when Frances and Lilian fall in love their relationship escalates into something dangerous.

I wasn't expecting too much from The Paying Guests. I love Sarah Waters, she's a fantastic storyteller, but I'd seen enough reviews to know that her latest novel isn't considered to be her strongest, and having finished it I'd have to agree.

Unlike any of her previous books, The Paying Guests is set in the 1920s, but rather than tell the 'typical' '20s story - think The Great Gatsby or Boardwalk Empire - Waters decided to focus on the quieter, more domestic side of the years after the First World War in which an entire generation of people had become disillusioned with pretty much everything. I found this aspect of the novel one of the most interesting parts; we soon learn that Frances was against the war, and even once threw her shoe at a politician, and that she lost both her brothers in the conflict. Some of the comments made about the war and its aftermath really made me think, and made me realise how little I know about the '20s that doesn't involve the typical story of flappers and prohibition.

I think The Paying Guests rivals Affinity in terms of how gloomy the setting is, how mundane and repetitive Frances's life is, and I felt like there was certainly something bleak about the underlying tone of the book that suited many of the topics it touched.

I've seen many reviews criticise The Paying Guests for being the most predictable of Waters' work, and I would have to agree - after reading Fingersmith and The Little Stranger it's difficult not to expect some amazing twist from this book, but instead it just plods along to a conclusion that I ultimately found a little unsatisfying. For me there wasn't enough chemistry between Frances and Lilian, and while I sympathised with them both separately I'm not sure I liked them together. I was actually a lot more interested in Frances's relationship with her ex, Chrissy, whom Frances left after their affair was discovered and she was persuaded by her mother to distance herself from her. Rather than the story Waters chose to tell, I'd've been much more interested in a Persuasion-esque story in which Frances and Chrissy were given a second chance. 

I liked Lilian, but as the novel moves towards its conclusion it's difficult to believe that she and Frances will ever be really happy together. There are some things couples just can't move on from.

If you're a fan of Waters' work I recommend checking this book out so you can make up your own mind about it - Waters is still a brilliant storyteller, and even though The Paying Guests is on the chunkier side I still read it fairly quickly - but if you're new to Waters I don't recommend starting here. Read Fingersmith instead!