It’s 1922, and London is facing hard times in the wake of the war. Spinster Frances Wray has lost her father and both of her brothers, and she and her mother have had to say goodbye to their servants. Unable to pay their bills, they are forced to admit lodgers into their South London villa. In come a modern young couple of the clerk class, named Lilian and Leonard Barber. Although Frances is resentful, at first, about having to share her home with people of a lower class, she is soon unable to ignore the chemistry between herself and Lilian. The two women begin an illicit romance, and their secret leads to a dark moment that will forever change their lives.
I’ve never read Sarah Waters before, so I can’t comment on how The Paying Guests compares to her other books. However, it was quite different from what I was expecting. It felt… a bit more like a soap opera than I was expecting, with its lesbian affair and the “dark moment” that I don’t want to spoil. The way it all played out felt rather melodramatic. That said, it’s an extremely well written soap opera with some pleasantly unexpected qualities.
Frances’ disposition makes this novel really unique. It’s not often that you read about a gay woman who lives so freely during this time period. Before she met Lilian, she had a relationship with another woman, which nearly culminated in the two ladies living together. It was really interesting to see Frances so boldly reject the social mores of the time to follow her heart, pursuing relationships society would condemn her for. It was refreshing that she didn’t try to stifle her impulses for the sake of security. At the same time, though, she is very smart about the way she conducts herself. She IS concerned about appearances, so she doesn’t act blatantly, but more subtly and cautiously. It was interesting to read a book from a perspective that I think is often ignored historically.
The Paying Guests would make an excellent book club read. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a LOT to talk about, plot-wise. I think readers will have many different opinions about Frances and Lilian’s actions and the way they respond to the big twist. Groups will also enjoy discussing social roles of the time — the different classes and the ways social positions changed after the war, expectations for women, and how Frances subverts those expectations. I didn’t entirely love this novel, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about.
I received a free copy of this book at BEA.