Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Format: Audiobook, 21 hrs 29 min
Read by Juliet Stevenson
The Paying Guests is set in 1922 post-war London. The narrator is in third person point of view, limited to the protagonist Frances Wray. Frances, age 26, lives with her mother as a “spinster,” struggling to maintain a large house in an affluent area of London. Her two brothers died young in the war, and her father followed with a heart attack, leaving confused finances and debt behind. Frances and her mother take a young couple as lodgers to pay the debts and support themselves.
The behavior, appearance, and background of the couple indicate they’re from a lower social class than the Wray ladies. Len and Lily Barber are loud and colorful, which Frances slowly grows to appreciate for brightening up the shadowy routine she fell into caring for the house and her mother so dutifully. As Len is jovial to the point of being a little creepy, Frances leans towards Lily’s flowery youth. Waters gradually fans the fires of romance in these the most unexpected circumstances.
The characters crafted in Waters’ story courageously confront stubborn assumptions regarding female gender, sexual orientation, and passion. The challenges continue to mount, and despite the odds against them, they make a brave plan to be together. On the brink of carrying out the plan, a terrible event takes them down a path of seriously questioning their morality in moving forward. Their plan no longer sparkles with passion and courage, and their love is truly tested.
The character development is well rounded and a little haunting. I sometimes found my shoulders tightening around my ears as I listened, but then remembered I am not Frances or Lilian. Their problems are not mine. I appreciated Waters’ skill in immersing the reader so thoroughly in characters from so far back in time.
I most appreciated the themes of finding love in unexpected places, embracing it, and not letting it go. Even when it loses its sparkle and gets tough. There are many bold themes worthy of discussion in this story, but I’ll end there because I don’t want to give away one of the biggest twists in the plot.
I strongly recommend this story for anyone who enjoys going back in time to tread in the shoes of women who blazed paths that shine in our time.
Rating Summary: 9.5
Brave, Passionate, Convincing