Set in London after the end of World War I, The Paying Guests is a gorgeous and haunting novel. It begins with Frances Wray, a single woman in her mid-twenties, and her widowed mother waiting for their new lodgers. The loss of Frances’ father and the discovery of his poor financial decisions has reduced the once-wealthy family to a meager existence, with only their beautiful home to sustain them. The lodgers, or paying guests, are Lilian and Leonard, a young married couple coming up in the world at the same time the upper class Wrays are slipping down. Frances’ life is bleak. She’s lost both her brothers in the war along with her own dreams of independence now that she is all her mother has left. A former activist who once hoped to forge her own life with a woman she loved, she spends her days attending to the tedious tasks of managing the household, occasionally visiting her ex (and ex’s new girlfriend), and steeling herself against the disappointment of her life.
To Frances’ surprise, the paying guests bring much more than desperately needed money. Her growing friendship with Lilian and Leonard gives Frances unexpected joy. Then as she and Lilian grow even closer, the possible price of this happiness looms.
The later part of the book centers around a murder investigation that is not a whodunit. Though you the reader know what happened, the motivations of characters become less clear as the police look into the death of a resident of the household. Secrets about the characters come to light, changing what you thought you knew. The investigation raises difficult questions about what is the right thing to do.
I found this book a slow start but absolutely worth the effort. The writing is emotionally evocative, stirring in turns resigned disappointment, desire, joy, horror, and profound uneasiness. The vivid portrait of life in the Wray household is unforgettable without being flashy or fawning. This is an intimate book, revealing the quiet and everyday, which makes the dramatic events grounded and much more disturbing than they might have been in a more sensationalist novel. Though this book is quite long–well over five hundred pages–and not the sort you’d read over a weekend, it’s worth the time. For one thing, you’ll want to savor Waters’ writing and her ability to transport you completely into another time and another life. Reading this is not a frantic rush to figure out what will all happen in the end. It’s about enjoying the journey, one that will stay with you long after you put the book down. Folks looking for a light read won’t find it here but I highly recommend this novel.