Having very much enjoyed Waters’s The Little Stranger, I was looking forward to this, her latest work. You probably know what’s coming, and yes, I was to a fair degree frustrated with this novel. Clocking in at 564 pages, it was too long. Now for me, that is not a hard and fast rule. Wolf Hall was almost exactly the same length, and I’d hoped it would never end.
The Paying Guests begins with a description of the lives of Frances Wray and her mother. They are living in extremely straitened circumstances. The year is 1923 and Britain is still reeling from the terrible losses sustained in the First World War. The Wrays themselves sacrificed two young men, brothers and sons, to that conflict.
Now they are simply trying to keep their heads above water. They have let their servants go and have made whatever other economies they can. Frances is doing all of the housework herself. It is grueling work, but offers a certain grim satisfaction:
She worked briskly and efficiently, taking her brush and pan from the drawing room to the top of the stairs and making her way back down, a step at a time; after that she filled a bucket with water, fetched her kneeling mat, and began to wash the hall floor. Vinegar was all she used. Soap left streaks on the black tiles. The first, wet rub was important for loosening the dirt, but it was the second bit that really counted, passing the wrung cloth over the floor in one supple, unbroken movement…There! How pleasing each glossy tiles was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point in dwelling on the scuffs.
And so it goes, day after day, until Frances and her mother decide to take in boarders. They could use the money. And so, enter Leonard and Lilian Barber, a young couple in need of affordable lodgings. They are the eponymous Paying Guests. At first, the arrangement seems suitable for all. But in actuality, the appearance of the Barbers on the scene presages a whole host of problems – problems that culminate in catastrophe.
In the main, The Paying Guests is a passionate love story, and one of my chief problems with the narrative was that the raptures of the lovers were dwelt upon at such length that I wanted to cry out, “Okay! I get it! They’re crazy about each other!” I don’t want to say any more for fear of giving away too much. I readily concede that Sarah Waters is an excellent writer; she vividly evokes the privations and losses suffered by many of the English in the wake of the Great War.. It’s just that in my view, some judicious editing would have done this novel a world of good.