The Paying Guests ~ Sarah Waters

the-paying-guestsI should say, right from the outset, that in the past I have not been a Sarah Waters fan.  To be honest, her first three books bored me; I actually gave up on Fingersmith half way through because I couldn’t bear to wade my way through the same events for a second time, even though they were going to be seen from a different perspective – one of my favourite narrative devices.  I preface this review in this manner as a warning to all devoted Waters fans, so that when I say that I really enjoyed her latest novel, The Paying Guests, they might be alerted to the fact that this isn’t, in my view at least, typical of her work.  I would call it Sarah Waters Lite.

Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking why I persist in attempting to read Waters’ novels when I have such difficulty with them.  Well, she is one of those authors about whom I have the sneaking feeling that the fault must lie in me rather than in her writing.  Couple that with the fact that this time round I was offered a free preview copy and you have the answer to my continued perseverance.  Remember what you were always told at school.  Eventually, perseverance pays off.

The Paying Guests is set four years after the First World War, a time when the reality of that conflict’s aftermath is becoming more and more apparent. Frances Wray and her mother are desperately trying to maintain their London home after the deaths of both the sons of the family and of the financially inept Mr Wray.  The house is crumbling around them and its daily maintenance is far more than Frances can manage herself.  The only answer is to take in paying guests – lodgers to you and me.  Enter Lilian and Leonard Barber, representatives of the clerking class, a rising breed as alien to Mrs Wray and Frances as any exotic bird might have been.

With no intention but to be model tenants, the Barbers manage to completely disrupt the household.  Mrs Wray is disturbed simply by their presence, the more so when Lilian’s exuberant, but wonderful, family come to visit.  Frances, on the other hand, is disturbed in more visceral ways. She has had to give up a previous affair in order to maintain relationships with her family, now she finds herself living in the same house as a woman who moves her to passionate love.

As we gradually discover, the Barbers’ marriage is deeply flawed and Lilian responds to Frances’ overtures.  Inevitably, when Leonard discovers this, tempers fly and an act is committed from which there can be no going back.  The rest of the novel is then concerned with how the two women deal with the consequences of what has happened and what it does not only to their relationship but also to each of them as individuals as they are forced to face what they discover about themselves in the light of their subsequent behaviour.  As Frances eventually recognises decency, loyalty, courage…all shrivel away when one [is] frightened.

So, why did I enjoy this book that much more than Waters’ other work?  Perhaps it attracted me more than the first three at least because it was about a time I felt I could more easily relate to.  No, I’m not Methuselah, I wasn’t around just after the First World War, but both my parents were and I have their recollections of what life was like trying to rebuild in a world that had changed forever both in respect of the material and the societal.  My maternal grandmother, like Mrs Wray, had lost all the men in her family and she was left to cope with three daughters only the eldest of whom was old enough to really be of any assistance.  Mind you, Mary Ellen, was made of very different stuff to Mrs Wray and would have demolished Frances’ mother with one lash of her extremely harsh tongue.  Nevertheless, the situation in which the Wrays find themselves is one that I can understand and also is extremely well drawn by Waters.  Her depiction of both the material deprivations of the post war years and the physical and emotional exhaustion against which everyone was still doing battle is excellent.  While there were times when I wanted to shake Mrs Wray for her complete inability to face the reality of what the world, her world, had become, I could still understand her confusion as everything she had been brought up to believe was inviolate simply crumbled around her.

Waters is also excellent in her portrayal of the various stages through which Frances and Lilian’s relationship goes as their individual situations become more and more precarious.  As Frances herself recognises, the two women really know very little about each other and this, coupled with the corroding fear of what might happen to them if the truth should come out, drives a wedge between them which may or may not remain forever as a barrier to a closer relationship.

If the book has a weakness then for me it is in the way in which it deals with the moral dilemma the women face when it appears that someone else may be blamed for the action they have perpetrated and the aftermath of that false accusation.  I can understand why they behave as they do and I think the manner in which they try to push the possible outcome from their minds is completely believable, but at the book’s conclusion the fact that they have got away with it is fore-staged over the question of what the knowledge of their escape is going to do to them in later life.  Perhaps that has to be a whole other book, but I was left feeling that, whatever their motivation, wrong had won and that subsequent retribution needed to part of the story as well.

35 thoughts on “The Paying Guests ~ Sarah Waters

  1. As I think you know, I’m a tremendous Sarah Waters fan. Her books feel almost like they could come from the periods she writes about. She seems to get the mind-sets of the time while telling stories that couldn’t really be told during those times. I liked this one a lot, although I did have some of the same qualms that you did about the ending. It felt like it was supposed to be a happily ever after ending, but I couldn’t stop worrying about how the trial and moral quandary would affect their relationship. I didn’t necessarily want them to decide to part, but I would, I think, have preferred some ambiguity about what they decided or fear about what it would mean.

    You mention being bored by her first three books. Have you tried The Little Stranger? I think it’s her most interesting book, and she takes on some of the same class issues as in this book, but after the second World War.

    1. Ah, I did try ‘The Little Stranger’ Teresa but I got as far as the point when it became apparent what was going to happen to the dog and couldn’t go any further. Dogs are my weak point, I’m afraid.

  2. I think you are the second blogger who has reviewed this who has called it “Sarah Waters Lite.” I have no plans on reading it. I’ve read two of her books and finished both feeling rather unimpressed. She is very popular but we all can’t love the same writers and books, where would the fun be in that?

    1. Exactly, Stefanie. There must be something about her writing that really doesn’t appeal to me if I can only take a watered down version. (No pun intended!) The problem is that she has become something of a cult writer and saying that you don’t like her work can open you up to all sorts of abuse. I speak from experience!

      1. I’d describe the one book of hers I read as “high risk” on the part of the author. The payoff at the end was enormous, but until that point, I’d been thinking, this is OK, but why do people say it is as amazing as they say it is? Also I think SW does tend to be very authentic on period detail and the “feel” of a period, with less of the colourful anachronisms and poetic licence so beloved by certain other historical writers. That trueness to life, a different pace of life and less immediate, can feel like hard work to me, although the plus is that I know it will be worth it.

        1. I would definitely agree about Water’s ability to conjure up a period, Denise. I think for me that is the best thing about ‘The Paying Guests’. She has that postwar period and the changes in class structure that were coming about absolutely right.

  3. Fingersmith left me just a bit underwhelmed really. That might have been me of course but I’ve not had the motivation to try anything else by Sarah Waters. And though I enjoyed the review this isn’t really flicking my switch either!

    1. Having finally managed to get to the end of one of her novels, I have to say that underwhelmed is a good description of how I feel given Waters reputation, Col. I may finally have got over my feeling that I really should appreciate her and give the next one a miss completely.

  4. Like you, I have had mixed reactions to Waters’ books. I loved The Night Watch (World War II!) but gave up on The Little Stranger. Since three reliable and thoughtful reviewers, yourself, Tom at A Common Reader, and Michael Dirda at The Washington Post recommend this, I would love to read it.
    P.S. You and Tom are among the very few bloggers who don’t turn into “book whores” when they receive free copies. It is a temptation to be too enthusiastic when the free books come, I know, and you and Tom never fall into that trap.

    1. Thank you, Kat. I suspect this has something to do with my years working with students writing thesis for higher degrees. You have to be prepared to tell them the truth about what they’ve written for their own sakes, although always being respectful, but if they can’t take constructive criticism then they are in trouble and I think the same is true of any writer.

  5. I’m floored, just because I’ve never come across someone who didn’t rave about Sarah Waters. I haven’t gotten around to reading anything by her yet, although I keep meaning to, but I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about that (I don’t even know how many times someone has asked me something like, “You’re interested in Victorian literature and gender? Have you read Fingersmith?”). My guilt is a little assuaged now, though. I still hope to get around to her novels at some point, but if this one is “Sarah Waters lite,” maybe I’d better actually start with one of the others.

    1. I’m not sure, Tasmin. If you haven’t read any of the others the this might be a good way in. However, if it is really the Victorian period that you’re interested in then one of the earlier novels would be more appropriate. I simply couldn’t summon up any interest in the characters in ‘Fingersmith’. When I had been labouring over it for five days and was still only half way through I decided I didn’t have enough reading time left in my life to justify continuing.

  6. It’s so interesting how we all react differently to novels… I loved Fingersmith, and no other Waters novel has yet lived up to it. I’m not a tremendous Waters fan, but I keep returning to her because sometimes I just want a long, historical novel, and she fits the bill nicely.

    1. I keep returning to her because I feel she is someone I should appreciate, Rebecca and then get let down every time. Having finally finished one of her novels I think I might pat myself on the back and let my guilt go.

  7. I have still not read her and was always looking foward to The Little Friend. Now I saw your dog comment and am beyond wary. For some reason I think I might be one of those who will not like her as much as others do.

      1. I like Sara Water’s books particularly Affinity which I thought got into the spiritualist mindset rather well. I can’t understand deluded fans who attack a blogger for not liking the same books!

        1. Neither can I Ian. Why someone should imagine that everyone is going to feel the same way about a book as they do and must be an example of extreme evil should that not be the case, is beyond me but you should see some of the comments that I have had to delete in the past when I have suggested that an author’s latest work might not be up to scratch.

    1. I think we have to admit to ourselves that we have the right not to like authors that our friends do, Caroline and just let it go. Having now actually finished one of her works I think I might just try and do that.

  8. Interesting to read a review by someone who is not a Waters fan. I am one, and I loved this novel, though I completely see what you mean about the last section. My own favourite is The Night Watch — one of the few books I have started again from the beginning the minute I finished it, partly owing to the back to front structure. But how boring life would be if we all liked the same books!

    1. Harriet, Your comment make me realise that ‘The Night Watch’ is the one novel of Waters that I haven’t tried. Given what you say about the structure it is perhaps one I should at least attempt to read. I shall give it some thought.

  9. Like Harriet, my favourite is The Night Watch. I loved that book because it was full of extraordinarily vivid scenes – I thought the storytelling was very good. Some of her earlier books have been a tad wordy for me, but the later ones have more focus. I’ve yet to read this but I don’t doubt I’ll give it a try.

    1. OK that settles it. I shall have to at least try ‘The Night Watch’ I wonder why it slipped under my radar? I shall have to look at the publication date and see if I can work out what I was engrossed in then.

  10. Fingersmith is the only one of her books I’ve read. It was ok but I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like it more. I didn’t feel compelled to want to read anything more by her to see if the experience would be any different.

  11. I loved Fingersmith and The Night Watch, felt fine about Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger, and have never been able to get through Affinity. I claim to love Sarah Waters, but my feelings about 50% of her books have been closer to lukewarm.

    That said, I loved The Little Stranger. Although justice wasn’t served in the end, at all, I liked that Sarah Waters showed us how the moral compromises Frances and Lilian made throughout the ordeal were going to stick with them. Even if they make up and build a life together (which I question), they’ll always be stuck with the knowledge that in the clinch, this is the kind of people they were, more cowardly than righteous. And you could tell that Frances, particularly, was trying to get away from that knowledge about herself.

    1. I thought that the end was something of a cop out because although I liked the fact that we were made aware of the stress their moral compromises created, I thought Waters failed to face up to the dilemma of where that relationship was going to go as a result.

  12. The Night Watch is the only Waters novel I’ve read, and my conclusion was to say that I can think of only one good reason for wallowing through its pages, and that’s to appreciate the extent to which we’ve made the lives of people like its homosexual characters marginally less miserable in the 60 years that have passed since the time period in which the events of the novel unfold.

  13. I’ve only read The Little Stranger–which was beautifully descriptive, but the distant characters and ambiguity left me feeling a bit unsettled. I prefer resolution in books like this. Well, with the exception of The Turn of the Screw.
    I’ve read both positive and less than positive (but not negative) review, so I’ve added it to my list.

    1. There is a measure of ambiguity at the end of this one as well, Jenclair, which I have to say I thought was a bit of a cop-out because it means a gapping moral hole is left unaddressed. Nevertheless, it is worth reading just for the picture Waters draws of that period of history.

  14. *chuckle* I had to identify with what you say about persisting with an author when every bit of your reading experience warns you not to. Ironically, given that you liked this one, this one is the one that has finally made me give up. I got to CD 6 of 17 and thought, no, no more, not ever again. Since I didn’t finish it, I didn’t review it on my blog, but I did review The Little Stranger, a review which I now reread with a sense of embarrassment about having tried another one by this author. I told myself so, and I didn’t listen to myself!

    1. In my case, Lisa, I know that I was influenced by the fact that my best friend, whose reading integrity I really trust, loves Water’s work. But I have to remember that we are not the same people and that it’s alright for me to have different tastes!

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