Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters

There was once a time when I despised British Literature. I declared my track in college as "Contemporary American Literature," and left the likes of Tristam Shandy and Pamela in my dust. I appreciated the Romantic and the Gothic era, but I still preferred American Lit. However, I really love what's coming from British writers these days. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, pushed me into a new reading pool that I absolutely adore, and Sarah Waters has now deepened my affection.

The Paying Guests takes place in London in 1922. Anything written between 1900-1945 already has my attention because I'm fascinated by this time in History. London is still in tatters after the first World War, veterans are broken men with menial prospects, and once prominent families face the reality of their wavering wealth. Frances Wray lives in the upper-class neighborhood of Champion Hill, only with the loss of her two brothers in the war and her father to bad health, she and her mother are left with a large old house they can't afford and a former lifestyle they can't maintain. The Wrays lost their wealth due to bad investments and now must take on "paying guests" to stay afloat. 

The story follows Frances, a complex character in her twenties and a closeted lesbian. She's let go of the one serious love in her life in order to fulfill her responsibilities as a daughter, and, to a degree, out of fear of what committing to the relationship would do to her social standing. This is an interesting time to place this dilemma - the 1920's are a time of great change, and yet there are still many who resist social progress. Being an anti-war suffragist was one thing, but revealing her true self is something Frances only dreams about.

When Frances and her mother take on Leonard and Lillian Barber as paying guests, the outgoing and lewd Mr. Barber overshadows his wife. Lillian is the quieter of the two, hailing from a lower class family that also talks over her, she has resorted to finding her voice through art and fashion. However, it is when Frances takes notice of Lillian and begins to peel back the layers of her domestic boredom and marital resentment that the attraction between the them moves beyond friendly to incredibly intimate.

Waters' ability to evoke eroticism without being overly graphic or crude proves she is a writer capable of great finesse. The explosions of intimacy between Lillian and Frances feel like volcanic release with the pressure of their unrelenting society, marriage and family stacking up behind them. Their affair is real and compelling, but the limited possible outcomes also make it heart wrenching.

I don't want to give the story away, but I do want to say that there are a lot of twists in the plot that are unforeseen. The latter half of the story feels like it goes on a little long, and my interest was not as stimulated as it was in the beginning with the rising action. It's interesting to follow a murder case and trial back before social media and the 24-our news circuit, but it made this story a bit longer than I thought it needed to be.

If you're looking for interesting characters confronting problems that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1920's then this is an excellent read. Sarah Waters makes you feel a part of Frances' world by exposing you to the painstaking efforts that go into keeping up appearances all for the sake of the approval of others, and the emotional suffocation that comes from suppressing the truth. 

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