The topic of this post, Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests has been on my list to read for about three years, ever since I heard Maureen Corrigan’s glowing review on Fresh Air. My desire to read Waters’ novel was reinforced not long after that, when a well-read co-worker of mine raved about it. But I think it was reading Margaret MacMillan outstanding history book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World with its detailed look at Europe in the immediate post-WWI era that finally inspired me enough to read The Paying Guests. (Set mostly in the London district of Camberwell, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention maybe even another reading challenge or two.) So duly inspired, I found an available copy through my local public library and began reading it. I’m happy to report I was not disappointed.
I won’t say too much about the story, but for those unfamiliar with The Paying Guests it takes place in 1922, when a down on their luck mother and daughter team decide to solve their cash flow problem by renting a room to a young married couple. Of course any situation in which a family is left with no choice but to share their home with a couple of strangers is not the best of all possible worlds. However, when a lesbian romance blossoms between daughter of the house Frances and border Lillian you know things will end badly. You just don’t know when and disastrous it will be in the end.
While many, rightfully so, have praised this novel for its charged but nevertheless nuanced eroticism, I’d like to applaud The Paying Guests for other reasons. One, as far as I can tell Waters researched the hell out of it. Reading it you feel like you’ve been transported back to England in the years immediately after World War I. Two, undoubtably because Waters long ago established her bona fides not just a lesbian writer, but one who excels at portraying how those romances could have played out in historical contexts much less accepting than our present one. (In one interview she prided herself on her ability to “pay attention to women’s secret history and lives.”) Since I can’t articulate it better than Maureen Corrigan did back in September of 2014, I’ll just quote her:
What’s so immediately compelling about our protagonist, Frances Wray, is that, in a way that doesn’t seem at all anachronistic, she’s comfortable in her own queer skin. It’s most of the rest of the world — and, tragically, some of the people in her own house — who have serious problems with Frances and her so-called unnatural sexuality.
Three, for all the above-mentioned reasons and probably a few others I didn’t mention, The Paying Guests is just one hell of a well-written novel. It’s got me wanting to explore more of Sarah Waters’ stuff and something tells me that’s not a bad thing.