Sarah Waters is a highly acclaimed Welsh novelist whose books typically draw from the Victorian era, often with the twist of a gay female protagonist. The Paying Guests is set in post-World War I London, and involves a formerly wealthy family whose entire male lineage was destroyed in combat. The mother and daughter remain but, in this male-dominated society, have no means by which to care for their deteriorating estate. In desperation, they take on a young, childless couple as lodgers or “paying guests,” as they prefer to phrase it a bit more delicately.
What unfolds is a tightly wound tale of a cataclysmically imploding infidelity with a distinctly gothic noire flavor. Waters is very good at her craft and has an excellent sense of story timing and a talent for building tension. The slightly off-center shift of the story derives from the homosexual nature of the affair between the daughter and the wife, creating a sort of lesbian Wuthering Heights.
The most interesting aspect of this shift is the matter-of-factness with which Waters treats it. The affair builds with the same rhythm of the most familiar stories, encounters the identical strains, difficulties, and jealousies. And the decidedly disastrous later events leave the reader with the same morally valorous sense of “just desserts.” This construction moves the novel from the much narrower LGBT genre into the general historical fiction/romance mainstream in a similar way that feminist author Rita Mae Brown’s drama and mystery novels have.
The main caution about this book is that it is not one for the optimist. Similar to Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, there is no light provided to illuminate any of the dark corners of this story. Instead, everything is overlaid with the grasping sense of desperation that was so defining of the “Lost Generation.” After this one, you will definitely want to join Bloom County for a “mass dandelion break.”