Sarah Waters’ latest offering, The Paying Guests, destroyed my sleep (and concentration) for several days. And I mean this as a compliment. For the most part, I couldn’t put it down, but at the same time was almost afraid to keep reading for fear of what would develop.
Waters is a great story teller, although her book isn’t a true “mystery”. Much like my beloved Columbo series, we readers are privy to who and how the death (is it really even a murder?) occurs, and we then watch to see how fate is meted out for the protagonists. Like many of Waters’ books, The Paying Guests, centers on the intimate lives of Victorian women, and perhaps even more prominently than some of her other books, features a lesbian romance between the two main characters, Frances and Lilian.
Set in post WWI London, the book opens with Frances and her mother in need of money to continue the upkeep on their Champion hill home. Frances’ father has died, and both brothers as well, in the war. In order to maintain their lifestyle, Frances arranges to rent out a suite of rooms to a young couple Mr. and Mrs. Barber (Leonard and Lilian).
Frances and her mother have a somewhat difficult time adjusting to their new lodgers, but Frances is extremely bored with her life of cleaning, cooking and looking after her mother and the too-large home. She soon befriends Lilian, also a bored wife who occupies her time with decorating the new rooms, and making new clothes and accessories. Slowly, eventually, Frances and Lilian become lovers, and Waters’ build-up to this relationship is both believable and sensitive. While I wasn’t sure that the relationship was entirely genuine on the part of Lilian (I’m still not convinced that she didn’t manipulate Frances to act on her behalf by first becoming her lover), Frances was certainly in love with Lilian from almost their first meeting.
Waters describes Victorian London beautifully — the parks, the jarring experience of riding a tram, the intimacy of a get-together at Lilian’s sisters’ flat, the bohemian allure of Chelsea — and invites, almost drags, the reader into the drama of the courtroom scenes, both at the local level and at “The Old Bailey” court where the final drama plays out.
It would be a true shame to give away the ending, or the basis for the psychological drama that plays out in Part III of the book. So, I won’t. Be prepared for a roller-coaster ride as you enjoy (or sometimes maybe you even dread a little) this page-turning read.