Spoiler alert: I’ll do my best to give advance warning when we get into the meaty spoilers, but will have to discuss some late twists and the ending of the story. Be forewarned!
After the first two titles in this series, in which both authors seemed determined to keep readers off balance, the first few chapters of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests read like settling onto a soft couch for an afternoon nap. This effect was possibly magnified for a reader like me, who is perhaps overly familiar with the literature (and the PBS/BBC series which have resulted from that literature) of England between the World Wars. We’re talking took-a-study-abroad-course-in-college-and-wrote-papers-at-Oxford-on-this-very-subject overly familiar. In addition to the familiar-to-me setting, the novel’s heroine, Frances, is instantly likeable: smart, gently sarcastic, but ultimately kind, worried about having compromised her beliefs to keep her family financially afloat in a way that isn’t entirely unfamiliar to modern audiences.
As one might guess from the title, Frances and her mother, left economically bereft by the discovery that Frances’s father had squandered the family’s money (and further complicated by the loss of Frances’s brothers in the Great War), rearrange their large family home to take in boarders. As one might guess from Waters’ prior novels, including Tipping the Velvet, Frances is a lesbian, in a period where even those who identify as such can’t voice the word aloud, and finds herself instantly drawn to the wife of the young couple that arrives to take up residence in their upstairs. And it is, for several lushly detailed chapters, a period romance told with twenty-first century generosity towards its main couple as they revel in their exploration of each other, Frances rediscovering a spark she thought lost to her, Lily, trapped in a too-hasty marriage brought on by a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, discovering true passion and love for the first time. As in an Edith Wharton novel, there are early signs that a spectacular crash is on the horizon; as is most often not the case in Wharton, the women are likeable enough characters (particularly Frances), that you actually fear the harm that’s coming.
And then the storm arrives, and the novel becomes something very different altogether.
(Here is the point where I put a front page break and a couple extra line breaks so as to not spoil anyone who actually plans to read this novel.)
When the storm clears, Lily’s husband is dead by her own hand, seemingly while trying to protect Frances (Waters clevely never quite confirms whether Lily’s blow lands too hard out of mistake or opportunity, and Frances’s, as well as the reader’s, uncertainty about the issue drives much of the last half of the novel). Lily and Frances manage to stage an alternative crime scene suggesting a mugging, and suddenly the period romance becomes tinged with the existential despair of Crime and Punishment, as the women suffer through the agony of the murder investigation and the arrest and trial of an innocent man. Frances decides they’ll confess if he’s convicted; Lily, suddenly, is distant, unsure. Has Frances just fallen in love with a fickle woman happy to use her to escape her marriage – first emotionally, then literally?
The Paying Guests lost me a bit in the final chapters, with only the strong interest I’d already developed in Frances keeping me reading. If you’re a fan of the English mystery novels of the era, there’s a few knowing winks to the conventions of that genre (including a conversation with a condescending detective I swear I’d read verbatim in at least two Christie novels) which prove a welcome bit of fun in the tension and melodrama of the chapters. Lily’s characterization is never quite as strong as Frances’s — even in the halcyon early chapters she is often defined by the things she *isn’t* (not as strong as Frances, not as crass as her working class family, not as ambitious as her husband). Her slow wilting under the pressure of the murder investigation and trial is quite human, but also becomes wearying and whiny; there’s one round of “it’s all too much, leave me be/ no wait, I love you I’ll do anything for you” too many. And yet, my heart was pounding as I read the pages that led up to Frances’s final decision on whether or not to confess the truth — only to have Waters, essentially, punt. In the end, enough is revealed both about Lily’s husband and the man mistakenly tried for his murder to feel too sorry about either’s fate, while Frances and Lily are spared from having to choose their freedom over an innocent man’s, and at least given the opportunity to build a real life with each other. Was this Waters pulling her punches or mocking those British mystery novels one last time with an ending lacking any clear moral stance? In the end, I’m vacillating as much as Frances — but this novel is definitely worth the read.
Rating: 4 stars
Next Up: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healy
Station Eleven Waitlist Position: 86