Book clubs are like buses: you wait ages for one and then two come along at once. O.K maybe not, but that is what happened to me in this case. You might remember from my I’ll Give You The Sun review
that I was looking for a book club when I discovered #SassyBooks. Well just after I’d started that I was contacted by Waterstones to see if I would like to join their book club this month. The chosen book was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
‘There came the splash of water and the rub of heels as Mrs Barber stepped into the tub. After that there was a silence, broken only by the occasional echoey plink of drips from the tap…’Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.’ It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be. This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story.
Sarah Waters has a few well known historical fiction titles under her belt already and although I do own Fingersmith, this is the first of her books I’ve read. I don’t think I have ever read historical fiction before either so this pushed me well and truly out of my comfort zone – just what I wanted out of a book club.
This story at times felt like a contradiction, mild-mannered yet up front, tender and passionate, violent yet gentle.
To begin with I absolutely loved the setting – the only book I have ever read set in the 20s before this was The Great Gatsby and unlike that, the setting for this is much more domestic. I found it particularly interesting to see how the after effects of WWI played into the lives of the women who had been left behind and how this left them with new freedom but also very constrained. Francis’s family were once very wealthy and had maids and servants to do all the work, but here we see Francis having to replace all these roles while trying to remain respectable to the outside world. It is also telling in the way they refer to the Barber’s as ‘paying guests’ instead of lodgers. There is also much mention of ex-servicemen now being out of work, beggers, violent and often seen more as a nuisance than a source of pride – a real sign of the times.
The writing, although descriptive and interesting throughout, did lose pace in places. I would realise sometimes that I’d read 50 pages and nothing further would have developed, but this does allow you to understand Francis’s motivation more.
The love story seemed believable but also quite false and I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice on behalf of the author. I was often left wondering if Francis really loved Lillian as much as she seemed to, and at times I did feel like she was manipulating her. On the whole I preferred Lilian as a character, although again: I did wonder how much of her love for Francis was genuine and not just fuelled by excitement and lust.
Of course just because you don’t like a character doesn’t mean the characterisation is bad – the characters for the most part did seem quite well developed. Francis’s Mum did seem like the exception to this and seemed at times quite one dimensional, only seeming to exist as a moral guide and to clip the wings of Francis who clearly wanted to be anywhere else. I would have also liked to have learnt more about Leonard and his motivations as I did find some of his actions odd at times and expected more to come of this.
Have you ever read any Sarah Waters? Personally I’ve been wanting to read Tipping the Velvet
Book provided by Waterstones, all opinions honest and my own.