Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

Thanks to the Penguin First To Read program for the opportunity to read this book early in exchange for my unbiased review.

Historical fiction is, for me, a dangerous game. Too many times have I been sucked into books that force heavy amounts of period detail down your throat, prose that wants to emphasize that its setting is so different from the present that it hurts. There are references to contemporaneous culture and repeated descriptions of old technology or perhaps scientific understanding of the world that, while perhaps initially engaging or surprising, grows stale by the end of the novel.

I was nervous but intrigued by The Paying Guests, so I gave it a shot. It's set just after World War I, in England, which is a time period I don't feel has been written to death (like World War II has, for example). It's the story of Frances Wray and her mother, two women left heartbroken by the loss of the men in their family to war and illness. Because Frances' brothers and father are gone, she and her mother are struggling financially--their rather oversize house is too expensive for them to afford, but they don't want to get rid of it.

With no other options, she opens her home to renters, which she refers to as "paying guests," from which we derive the title and also an idea of some of the pride and class distinction Frances has. The lodgers she brings in are a married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, and though it is difficult for her and her mother to adjust, the Wrays begin to accept the Barbers as a part of their daily lives. But then Frances, a closeted-by-her-time-period lesbian, falls in love with Lilian, and that's when it all starts to get interesting.

The first thing I want to address is, of course, what I mention at the beginning of this review, the danger of historical fiction. Fortunately, oh so fortunately, The Paying Guests does not sink into the trap. There are details that contextualize us, but they're written so naturally into the story that I never once felt slapped in the face with authenticity. It's the small, day-to-day things: having to heat bath water, an outhouse in the backyard, a mid-20s woman being considered a spinster. The storyworld of Waters' book is very textured and realistic, but never gets in the way of the plot.

Speaking of which, what an intricately-spun tale! I am afraid of spoiling what lies in wait for anyone who reads the book, but suffice it to say that Frances' amorous feelings for Lilian really complicate their living situation. The novel starts as a fairly straightforward (but dazzlingly-told) story of unrequited, forbidden love, but in turn morphs into a suspense novel and then a legal thriller. It also serves as a fantastic meditation on guilt: should I feel guilty about my own feelings? What about the actions my feelings have pushed me toward? It is magnificent no matter what kind of tale it's trying to tell.

What really anchors the story is the characters, especially with regard to Lilian and Frances. They are beacons of what it really means to be well-written: they're complicated characters who grapple with their emotions and the constraints placed on them by society. Their interactions are incredibly emotionally evocative: at times I could feel the burning desire, the horror, the panic as though it were my own. It is truly marvelous.

The Paying Guests is a long book--nearly 600 pages--and my only criticism is that it would have been slightly pruned. There are sequences that drag, sequences that the book probably could have done without, but it's still a gorgeous work. If you love subtle historical fiction, Sarah Waters' newest is certainly a go.

My rating: 5/5
The Paying Guests on Goodreads
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