Set in post-war London, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters paints a bleak picture of how returning soldiers came back to no employment and most women were in mourning for lost sons or husbands. The pious Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances, having once being members of the genteel class, are forced to take in lodgers, a young couple of the “clerk class” to maintain their stately home in South London. The arrival of up-and-coming and fashionable married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber transforms the path in life Frances resigned herself to of being her mother’s carer as their tenancy ends up with her becoming part of a love triangle and as a result also being entangled in a complicated murder case. Frances has always been good at keeping secrets but she cannot but help battling with her conscience when an innocent life is at stake.
This is the first Sarah Waters novel I have read so Frances revelation about her sexual history surprised me given the attitudes of the time period the book was set in. I am not sure if The Paying Guests should be categorised as historical fiction or romance or suspense because it features all those themes. Strangely enough, this book just like The Last Dance is also about adultery but of the more emotional rather than physical sort although the latter isn’t ignored. The protagonist of this book, Frances, didn’t charm me being the hard-edged soul that she was. The whimsical Lillian Barber was a bit of an enigma to me especially her actions in the last part of the novel; were those motivated by love or selfishness or revenge? The character of odd Leonard Barber was the easiest to read. Mrs Wray seems far too close-minded and very judgmental when it comes to women behaving in ways contrary to her expectations. In more minute roles, other characters also feature: Lillian’s extended family, Leonard’s confidante and business associate, Charlie Wismuth, the immediate family of Leonard, Mrs Wray’s companion, Mrs Playfair and so on.
The Paying Guests starts quite slowly so I was expecting this to be a gruelling read until the affair was discovered. However after a new and unexpected friendship blossoms between Lillian and Frances, the plot starts to move faster due to developing frustrations and mounting passions. That being said there was a lot of dwelling and reflecting on unnecessary points making me feel The Paying Guests would be a better reading experience if reduced in amount of mundane detail.