Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Paying Guests.
Set in post-Edwardian Britain, Waters’ latest novel, The Paying Guests, bears the hallmark of her best period pieces, a melding of time, place and human experience, each detail fitted into the whole in perfect harmony of language and environment. More radical is the secret passion underlying events in the household of Mrs. Wray and her daughter, Frances, who grieve for Wray’s two sons lost in the Great War. It is 1922, and in an effort to pay the bills of a once grand residence in Camberwell, the two have decided to take in paying guests, a young married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber.
Having rearranged the house to accommodate the newcomers’ needs, mother and daughter have yet to make peace in their hearts with their altered situation, though they have no other choice if they are to remain in the family home neither wants to leave. Ever concerned with her neighbors’ opinions, Mrs. Wray frets that her status will be diminished, her waning years filled with burdens and forced to accept the impossibility of keeping a maid, though Frances takes over the menial household duties with remarkable good grace. Neither is sure how they will cope in the coming days, Frances solicitous of her mother’s comfort, especially since the death of her father.
The fragile balance on a psychological tightrope finally proves impossible: four people under one roof, the fluctuating emotions of those to whom the house belongs and intruders welcomed by necessity. The Wray family history plays a part in the unfolding drama, particularly Frances’ role as spinster daughter, when her life-plans had been so different, so much more hopeful. The strangers bring their own secrets with them, the freedom of living alone after the discomfort of Len’s parents’ home and the need to temper their enthusiasms to avoid disturbing their hosts. The soft, feminine Lilian and the often too-friendly Len fill the once sedate rooms with the sounds of domesticity and Len’s exuberance. Though she hasn’t meant to, Frances finds herself drawn to Lilian, tentatively reaching toward friendship yet sensitive about rejection and the class differences between them. The Wrays are proper, of good reputation, the Barbers more worldly, Lilian from a more commercial background. Secrets fester beneath the surface of forced tranquility, from Frances’ falling out with her father before his death to the truth of Lilian and Len’s marriage, the couple perhaps having married in haste and now tethered to one another, forced to make the best of it.
Two young women begin a friendship that pushes conventional boundaries, an ambitious and gregarious husband inflicts his maleness on a household of women, and what begins as a way to alleviate financial worries spirals into a complicated mélange of respectability versus the forbidden. Waters weaves a dramatic tapestry replete with sexuality and hidden passions in an era that still prides itself on Victorian moral directives, damning anyone who dares stray outside the lines. Then a tragedy, the culmination of lies and subterfuge between Len, Lilian and Frances, changes everything. An infamous court trial becomes a fulcrum, testing the strength of a commitment while initiating a procedure within a legal system that takes on a life of its own, regardless of guilt or innocence. Waters challenges her readers to read between the lines of history, to acknowledge the realities of human nature and sexual identity, a peek beneath the ornate Victorian covers inspiring a tragedy that threatens to shatter an impossible love.