Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review of "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters

Formerly well-off Frances Wray and her mother are having a hard time in post-WWI London. Frances' brothers were lost in the war and her father died leaving a load of debt. To conserve money the Wrays had to let the help go. So 26-year-old Frances has to do all the household chores while her mother - apparently unable or unwilling to do any cooking or cleaning - goes about her personal business. Thus Frances is generally roughly dressed, tired, and sporting the rough, red hands of a charwoman. Not the life she had pictured for herself.

To help pay the bills the Wrays decide to rent part of their house to paying guests, Leonard and Lillian Barber. The Barbers are an upwardly mobile twenty-something couple that have little in common with the Wrays. Leonard works for an insurance company while Lillian stays home lounging and decorating her rooms to resemble an exotic bazaar. Though Frances is put off by brash, intrusive Leonard she starts to becomes friendly with the Barbers. On a night when there's been too much drinking this leads to an uncomfortable game of 'Snakes and Ladders' where a drunk Leonard enforces his own made-up rules. Frances is embarassed and starts to sense some trouble in the Barber marriage.

Living in the same house, Frances and Lillian become friendly, with chats and walks and picnics. Eventually Lllian cuts and waves Frances' hair, updates her party gown, and takes her to a relative's birthday party - where there's drinking, dancing, and flirting. Leonard also seems to like Frances, and hangs around to talk to her whenever he gets the chance. Proximity and attraction lead to a relationship that ultimately results in a terrible accident, a police investigation, and a trial.

The author is adept at depicting emotions and the characters feelings of love, desire, worry, anger, despair, and so on seem authentic and true to life. That said, I didn't especially like many of the characters. Frances seems pushy and a little selfish, Lillian appears a bit manipulative and obtuse, and Leonard comes across as a bully and a lech. I felt some sympathy for Mrs. Wray, who lost her sons and husband and is bewildered by her daughter. And I was entertained by Lillian's large, boisterous family, who inject a needed touch of humor into the book.

To me the story was disturbing but this is a good book that's well-written and worth reading. Plus it contains subject matter that's good fodder for book clubs.

Rating: 3.5 stars


  1. Sounds wonderful. Dealing with adversity--I love reading that sort of story.