In The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters takes us across the pond and back in time to a society where women’s roles were set and their choices limited. In post-war England, where so many men—brothers, fathers, husbands, friends—were lost, the women and society as a whole are struggling to adjust to a hard-won peace they somehow find disappointing. While they are grateful for peace, the men who have returned are damaged, former soldiers can’t find work, and women can’t find husbands.
Ms. Waters succeeds in transporting her reader to the world in which her main character, Frances, struggles to keep the family home after the deaths of her brothers and father. She does this by making the difficult decision to take in boarders. In deference to their situation and consideration of her mother’s feelings, their neighbors refer to the boarders, Mr. and Mrs. Barber, as the “paying guests.” They also pretend not to notice Frances’s damaged hands from the daily housework and labor she’s taken on since they could no longer afford to keep servants.
Though Frances was determined at first to maintain professional boundaries with the Barbers, loneliness and time wore those boundaries down until they crumbled under the weight of attraction and possibly love. Trapped and desperate, the lovers’ plans go horribly wrong, with devastating and irreversible consequences. Frances can’t escape her fear for their freedom or her guilt over what they’ve done. Emotions and turmoil not only tear at their relationship, but their physical health and even their sanity. Warning—some of the sex scenes are quite graphic, as is a rather detailed account of a miscarriage. This book is definitely intended for adults.
Though the descriptions can run long, the plot is well-developed and the characters multi-dimensional. You feel compassion for them and somehow understand their actions even if you don’t agree with or like them much. It’s a long read, and therefore calls for a lighter and reasonably priced wine. I’d recommend the Montoya Pinot Noir. You might want shoot for the multi-bottle discount, so that you have enough to accompany all 500+pages.
Enjoy, and happy reading!