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.)