Monday, October 27, 2014

Sarah Waters - The Paying Guests

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.

Comment: I got interested in this book after reading the blurb at GR. The book showed up at my on line shop site suggestions and the title seemed interesting. After I got the book I was quite intrigued although it's not my usual type of stories, meaning set during the 20s. I didn't investigate further, but after the first chapter I went to see the author's work and yes, there is a trend to her books.

This is Frances' story and how she and her mother are forced to have lodgers - paying guest as they call them - in their big house after Frances' father died and left many bills and debts. The book is set after the first Wold War ended and England is still filled with former soldiers, misery, poverty and a changing society.
Lilian and Leonard Barber are a young couple, middle class, and they have an apparent good marriage. But as time goes by, we follow the way all the characters start to know each other, friendships are settled, conventions are put aside and even desire makes an appearance. But once things change for good, it seems they won't stop until someone pays for it.

This was my first book by Sarah Waters. I didn't even know about her before and I wasn't compelled to do any research, so the book kind of made a surprising impression on me.
I confess I thought this book would address a relationship between Frances and mr Barber, but after a while it became obvious the connection wasn't with mr Barber, but mrs Barber! Then I did some more research and it seems there's a recurrent theme in the author's novels', which is lesbian characters.
I was doubtful about the whole thing, but the relationship between Frances and mrs Barber, Lillian, was slow to happen. Still, when they changed from different classes friends to lovers, I didn't like it so much, but at the time, I was already hooked on the story and, I do confess, marveled at the author's writing talent.

It seems Sarah Waters is a wonderful author and that is obvious. Even when things weren't going that well, plot wise, I admit it that I couldn't stop reading, because the way the plot is created, almost unimportant and fulled of society little things, the difference in classes, the monetary connection between lodgers and owners, the political situation of the time setting, all that seemed trivial but together with the author's talent made for an amazing story line where one can feel all the details in their conversations, the tension in their meetings, their interactions, the innuendos of their behavior. I think there aren't many authors with this storytelling power out there.

The lesbian content went from pointed at, to subtle, to wishful to obvious. I can't say it's something I feel easy to read about, but in this book the relationship has to go through many obstacles, and not only society ones. I think there are a lot of decisions made on the relationship that propel the plot forward but are huge risks which to my common sense seem silly but I can understand the meaning of it to the plot.

The book is divided into 5 parts, being the first one a sort of set up for things to come, my favorite in terms of atmosphere. There's a crime committed during the story and the investigation is an important part of everything. I think the biggest lesson one can take from this, we should think before we act. Sometimes common sense and a cold head work better than any impulse, even if heartfelt.

Like I said, I was marveled with the writing, so addictive and polished and perfect. The story got from a daily telling of  the character's lives to a momentum setting and I was hoping for some amazing end, something unique, but unfortunately, the end is a disappointment, I hoped so much more from this! After such a gradual but increasing tension of what was happening, I expected a spectacular end, but it wasn't so. What an anti climax. I really think the characters didn't had what they deserved, especially for heir own peace of mind, after the things they did and the consequences that would ask of them.

The characters are beautifully done and put on paper. Frances is quite the character, she has so many good qualities and at some point I thought she would honor her personality, her values, but some things happen and she didn't react like I thought. I only mention her because she is the key player and it's from her POV we see most things. I really hoped for a better end for her. Or, at least, something more suitable for her behavior throughout the novel.

In the end, quite the reading experience, a really perfect and genius's voice but a sadly disappointing end to a brilliantly told story. I don't know if I feel like reading more by the author, but this book was almost the thing, except for that ending.
Grade: 6/10

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