Frances Wray and her mother live in a large but decaying house in London. It is 1922 and WWI has changed the world. Both brothers died in the trenches and when her father died, he left Frances and her mother in debt. Now they cannot afford servants and Frances has to do all the housework by herself. Frances was a suffragette when she was younger, but now she settled into her role as caretaker for her mother.
To earn some money the Wray’s decided to take in paying guests. This couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber are a lower class than the Wrays. He is a bragging man who flirts with Frances and makes her feel uncomfortable and she is a superficial woman who spends her time decorating her rooms with cheap trinkets. Frances and her mother are having a hard time coming to terms having to share their house with strangers.
But because they often meet each other on the landing or the stairs, a friendship begins to form between Frances and Lilian. This is the beginning of a deeper bond between the two women, that will have consequences for all the people involved.
Sarah Waters is very good in creating an atmosphere and sketching the historical era. She does this cleverly by giving many details about the way things look and how things were done. Te relationship between Frances and Lilian and how this progresses, is also well written. But sometimes she takes too much time, the scenes for example where Lilian and Frances go to a party and where Francis spends an evening with the Barbers take too long and are quite boring to read.
Other scenes also could have done with less details and less pages. There is at a certain point a scene I could hardly read, because of all the gruesome and bloody details. It is not necessary to dwell on these things, the situation was horrible enough.
The paying guests is not just a love story, but also a thriller and a court drama. It is only a pity I did not feel any sympathy for any of the characters. This was mostly due because I really could not understand their reactions after something horrible happened. That everything finally turned out all right was not because the two main characters stepped up and did the right thing, but a complete outsider did the right thing.
I do not believe a relationship based on lies, cowardice and deceit can work, although Sarah Waters will have you believe it might be possible for these two women to have their love and a good life. I believe they will not escape justice forever.
In short, as far as I am concerned, The paying guests is a decent historical novel with some good period details, but with two main characters who lack in moral courage.
Published in 2014