[455]: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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GOODREADS SUMMARY | McClelland & Stewart | Hardcover, 576 pages
Publication Date: September 16th, 2014 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Mystery
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


The literary world is a vast universe I’ve only began to explore. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Sarah Waters’ latest via a recommendation from one of the ladies at my bookstore. I wasn’t familiar with the author and her work, and much to my delight, I found out that Sarah Waters has the corner on a specific arch: lesbian protagonists in an historical setting. I’m ashamed to admit that this is my very first read featuring a lesbian relationship, considering that I’ve read my fair share of gay lit featuring two males.

More and more, I’m learning that if I read up on an author’s background, it helps understand why they chose a specific niche. Sarah Waters’ background on lesbians and gay in historical fictions inspired  the characters in her books. However, I’ve yet to read other books for which she’s known for (Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet), but I was able to have to taste of it in this novel.

This one follows the story of Frances; a woman who had to be at the helm of what’s left of the family fortune.  Her brothers were both killed in the war; closely followed by the death of her father, leaving her to care for her mother and a house in a state of disrepair. As they learned that her father lost just about everything to failed ventures, Frances and her mother decided to take on borders (or paying guests) to alleviate the financial stress. This was how they met Lillian and Leonard Barber, the childless married couple who would be the subject of Frances’ great curiousity, and would spearhead a tumult of chaos in what used to be a peaceful life.

Frances didn’t expect to experience such great attraction to Lillian, but the lonely homemaker found what her husband lacked in Frances. I suppose if I’d to dive deeper into her psyche, I’d say that Frances offered refinement, and gentle love as oppose to Leonard’s exuberance. What started out as friendship and easy companionship evolved into a clandestine affair between the two women. To read such a relationship in that era and how women dealt with the condemnation of the time was interesting to me. What’s even more surprising (or maybe not so), is that in the present time, if you find yourself in a conservative circle, you’ll probably be met with the same narrow-minded judgement. In some cases, status quo is about the same.

Another point of interest for me was the implications of the women’s role during and after the war. When men left to fight, women assumed the jobs that they vacated. Waters deftly captures the gender role reversals after the war: while the men could barely find employment, the women have become established in positions that were previously unavailable to them. Some men felt castrated, and didn’t shy away from expressing their opinions.

Because this book was my baptism of fire to Waters’ works, I would consider it as an adjustment period of sorts. A taste test, to get a feel of what to expect from her. I’ve never been one to go for award-winning body of works, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try them. Sarah Waters writes with sophistication, but hardly reticent to tackle anything that could be considered crass or uncivilized, if need be.

I enjoyed this one, but I think hers are the kind of novels where your mood dictates exactly when you should pick them up. I’m looking forward to Fingersmith, though; and wouldn’t mind picking up her other novels as well.