Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review Tuesday: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (#lesbian #thriller #historical)

The Paying Guests cover

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Riverhead Books, 2014

Frances Wray lives a rather dismal and claustrophobic life in 1922 London. She spends her days cooking and cleaning for her widowed mother, trying to maintain the illusion of gentility though they’re nearly bankrupt. In her scarce free time she mourns the loss of her two brothers, taken by the War, and her former lover Christina, now coupled with another woman.

Desperate to make ends meet, Frances and her mother decide to rent out several rooms. Their lodgers —the “paying guests” of the title—are not the sort of people with whom the Wrays usually associate. Lilian and Leonard Barber come from a different social class, and have different habits and values. They smoke and drink, play the gramophone and dance, host parties and play naughty games. They are a “modern” couple, with much freer manners than the more traditional Wrays.

Though their presence constitutes a painful invasion of Frances’ privacy, the Barbers also bring some color to her drab life. She finds Lilian fascinating, with her bright clothing, costume jewelry, knick knacks and gewgaws, as well as her rather poor and common but boisterously affectionate family. Flirtatious and good-looking, Leonard proves to be a challenge, emphatically and uncomfortably male in what had been an all-female household.

Lilian and Frances become friends, then more than friends, after Frances confesses her former affair with Christina and the younger woman admits how deeply unhappy she is with Leonard. As they grow closer, they struggle to hide their forbidden passion from the world. Then their secret triggers a series of tragic events that entangle them in shared guilt and tear apart their mutual trust.

The Paying Guests is a phenomenally good book. It is simultaneously an historical and social commentary, a terrifying thriller and a steamy lesbian romance. Ms. Waters manages to capture the fleeting nuances of emotion with astounding precision. Her characters live and breathe. Their relationships exhibit all the contrariness and complexity of real human interaction, shifting and reshaping from one moment to the next.

Sarah Waters is known for her rich portrayals of the past. Compared to the colorful Victorian era she captured so expertly in Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, her post-War London feels grim and unsettled, full of uncertainty and suppressed violence. The Great War shattered illusions and remade society. A whole generation of young men died. At the same time, new opportunities opened for women brave enough to take advantage of them.

Despite these new possibilities, women were far from free. Ms. Waters’ horrifying description of a pharmaceutical abortion makes this stunningly clear. Frances chooses to break off her relationship with Christina when they are discovered, rather than being repudiated by her family. Unable to support herself, terrified of being alone, Lilian is trapped in her loveless marriage to philandering Leonard.

All these uncertainties and pressures, as much as their mutual attraction, drive Frances and Lilian into each other’s arms. Their lovemaking is furtive but intense. Without being anywhere nearly as graphic as I (for instance) might be, the author paints scenes that are gorgeously erotic.
But already the darkness was lessening. Lilian was beside her, a shimmer, a blur. She put out her hands and they found her face, they found her lips: they were smooth, cool, wet. She kissed them again, even as she touched them, kissing around and across her own fingers. She drew her hands, damply, to Lilian’s throat, to the silky skin at the opening of her nightgown.

The gown had three small buttons on it, hard and round. She undid the first, and then the second.

May I do this?’

She felt Lilian hesitate. But the third button was undone now; now she had parted the cloth, had dipped her head, was stroking and kissing. And after another few seconds of it Lillian moved forward with a sigh to meet the touch of her fingers and her mouth. Her breasts were warm, fantastically heavy, fantastically hard at the tips. Beyond was the thud, thud of her heart—Frances kissed every beat of it.

Finally, The Paying Guests incorporates all the tension of a mystery, a period police procedural complete with swaggering officers, severe judges and dodgy witnesses. This last section of the book was painful to read, as guilt, secrets and circumstances conspire to drive Frances and Lilian apart. I couldn’t stop, though, no matter how dark the story became. I needed to know the verdict—even if things were going to end as badly as it seemed.

I won’t tell you how the book does end, though. I don’t want to spoil the experience.

The Paying Guests is not as much of a feel-good novel as Tipping the Velvet. It’s not as cleverly constructed as Fingersmith. However, it’s one of the most vivid and realistic portrayals of the human heart I have ever read.

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