Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

January 16, 2015

Honesty is the best policy, we’re often told, and the story (possibly apocryphal) about George Washington and the cherry tree is a story of virtue. What happens when we fail to be honest, with ourselves and with others is a central theme of Sarah Waters’ novel “The Paying Guests.” Frances Wray and her mother, Emily, live in a southern suburb of London. The time is the early 1920s. Frances’ two brothers, one older, one younger, died in the Great War. Her father died soon after, and Frances and her mother rapidly learned that he had indulged in some unsuccessful speculations. They are deeply unprepared to earn their living, but they do own a large house in a good neighborhood. So, despite their desperate attempts to cling to gentility, they must take in lodgers.

 It’s a good thing they do, because the rent the lodgers, a young couple called Leonard and Lilian Barber, pay is not enough to cover the upkeep of the house. At least the rent means that Frances and her mother will have enough to eat. Frances spends her days cleaning and generally trying to keep the decay at bay, and her clothes are worn out. The initial encounters between the Wrays and the Barbers are awkward and uncomfortable, as there are shared common spaces and only one lavatory – in the garden. Eventually everyone becomes a little more accustomed to each other, and then friendship blooms: first between Frances and both Barbers, and then, with increasing intensity, between Frances and Lilian.

 It seems to Frances that something is wrong between the Barbers, though she can never quite identify what. Then, one evening, she joins them for drinks, and games, and experiences some cruel and humiliating behavior by Leonard. Frances is not interested, particularly, in Leonard. Frances is a lesbian who was forced out of a relationship by her parents; her mother still hopes she will marry. Frances has no interest in doing so – her interest is consumed more and more by Lilian, who returns her passion. They start to plan a life together, until, midway through the novel, a tragedy occurs.

 From this point on, the novel becomes partly a police procedural, and partly an extended meditation on the risks, and benefits, of dishonesty. Frances has been lying to her mother about her sexuality; Lilian has been lying to herself; and Emily probably has too. Frances and Lilian must face the extremely difficult consequences of their actions, and the ramifications that stretch far beyond what they expect: there are immediate effects on their families, and friends, but then others are affected as well. If they own up, they may save an innocent man from the gallows; if they do not, they save their own skins. Both pay the cost of an unconsidered decision.

The novel is more than 500 pages long, with a great deal of internalization, and vividly drawn characters who generally act convincingly. “The Paying Guests” is told almost entirely from Frances’ point of view. Waters captures the tensions between two families from different classes sharing a house through an accumulation of telling details; her descriptions of female sexuality and lovemaking are similarly convincing. Despite the length, the link between Frances and Lilian – what impels them toward each other and lets them overcome the barriers of class and societal disapproval – was missing. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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