The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters

gurestsImpoverished and alone as a result of the war, with a father who died of apoplexy, and two brothers who died in the fighting of WWI, Frances Wray is left with her father’s debts and her mother’s care. They are forced to take in boarders to make ends meet, but they live in a posh, fashionable area and so they call them paying guests, instead of the more common term of boarders.
Lillian and Leonard Barber are the paying guests who insert themselves into the lives of the Wrays in varied ways. From different classes in life, at first there is some stiffness in their relationship, but gradually, that eases as they all grow accustomed to each other’s habits and learn to tolerate each other rather well. A friendship develops between Frances and Lillian, not totally approved of by Mrs. Wrae, believing it to be inappropriate for many reasons.
Frances, unmarried at age 26, is thought of as a spinster and has taken full charge of hearth and home in terms of cleaning chores and cooking tasks. Her mother is rather a high-born creature who carries herself with airs as the English of that time used to do, but she tries to help with the gardening and appreciates all that Frances does for her. Lillian Barber is several years younger than Frances, and often, the relationship between her and her husband is questionable. She seems to be a bit of an eccentric, collecting odd things, with an apparent interest in appearances and fashion. She is sometimes flamboyant in her choices.
The novel is much more than a story about the relationship that develops between two women who become totally devoted to each other. It is also a murder investigation and a courtroom drama that will keep the reader on the edge of the seat. It is a tragic story of forbidden love in many forms and the times were not particularly kind to independent women of any stripe which made the relationship between Lillian and Frances even more difficult, but the additional tragedy that occurs, that throws the Wrae household and their posh neighborhood into turmoil, also brings out the vultures looking for gossip and “dirt”. They jump to unnecessary and incorrect conclusions, allowing the story to take on a life of its own, veering off into fantasyland, oftentimes.
England, as were many places in the 1920’s, was going through a time of drastic change and these women were caught up in the thick of it. There was no legal avenue for abortion, lesbianism was unacceptable and considered evil, divorce was anathema, poverty was rampant, the prejudice of class differences were commonplace, and following the war, hardship was the general order of the day for most people.
The murder trial that ensued, therefore, was a great distraction, and it took on an atmosphere of entertainment. Sides were chosen and there was no regard for the suffering of any of the participants in the investigation or trial, or actually, with any regard for the truth. Conclusions were drawn and then events were put into place to prove them, regardless of whether or not they were credible.
The author keeps the reader guessing about the outcome until the very end of the book. It is a story about lies and deception in many forms and in many unexpected places. It is a story about the way people often relate to each other, misjudge each other, allow fear to motivate their behavior, and jump to angry, incorrect conclusions, sometimes doing foolish things and making foolish decisions in an effort to protect those they love or themselves.
This novel was not at all what I expected. From the brief description I read, I had no warning about the type of love story that would absorb the book. Personally, I would have liked to have known in advance, since I am not normally a reader of romantic novels and certainly have not chosen one about lesbians, prior to this. I have no objection to alternative lifestyles, but I do resent when they begin to appear so often as to assume an identity of being mainstream, assuming the audience for them is broader than it perhaps actually is. That said, although it is a romantic tale about the love of two unlikely women for each other, and it was totally unexpected from the brief reviews I had read, it was done with great taste, without sordid language and without sexual descriptions that existed only for the purpose of erotic arousal. The tale is well written with a lyrical and descriptive prose, in the style of the English, early in the 20th century, observing their formalities in behavior and speech. and the reader of the book is a perfect narrator, with exacting emphasis and expression for each of the characters.
The book is excellent. I would have given it 5 stars were it not for the bit of obvious deception in the general review about the plot driven tale centered around the unexpected love affair. While the ending was credible, the outcome may not be what the reader would think of as true justice.

About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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