Frances Wray and her mother have been sliding down the social ladder since the end of World War I. The Wray boys were killed in combat. The father died shortly after, leaving huge debts and bad investments. The Wray women have economized as much as they can but, their only choice at this point is to accept lodgers (called “paying guests” to save face). The Barbers arrive one summer day. By the time the summer is out, Frances will see love and death and legal drama and misfortune in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests.
When the Barbers first move, Frances resents them but is determined to cope in her version of British stiff-upper-lip/martyrdom. Mrs. Barber, Lilian, quickly overdecorates their rooms with knickknacks. Mr. Barber, known as Len, always seems to have a double entendre on his lips and hangs around underfoot. But after a few weeks, Frances starts to develop a protective kind of friendship with Lilian. Lilian attracts eyes wherever she goes, seeming resigned to male attention until France tells off a man who followed them around the park one day. Even if you’re not familiar with Waters’ novels, you can soon tell that there’s something more in Frances’ protectiveness. Frances has fallen in love with Lilian.
Years before The Paying Guests begins, Frances was caught having an affair with another girl. France gave her up to sooth her family and has resigned herself to caring for her mother and the Wray house indefinitely. Her sudden passion for Lilian—and Lilian’s reciprocation of that passion—brings her back to life. Naturally, the course of true love can never run smooth. Just as Frances and Lilian are plotting how to leave Len Barber, Lilian finds herself pregnant. Then Len is found dead in the alley behind the house. Waters tells you exactly what happens. The only mystery is whether Frances and Lilian’s love will survive the literal and metaphorical trials that follow.
The best thing about this book is the setting. Waters’ lives up to her reputation for scrupulous research. The Paying Guests feels like 1922. The characters are not entirely sympathetic, though they are very interesting. Even if one can’t bond with a character, there’s still the setting to draw you in. Waters’ is very good about sketching backstory without belaboring a reader with exposition, so it’s very easy to believe that her characters might actually be real people.
I won’t say too much about the ending for fear of ruining it, but I will say that the ending is perfect and brave.