I began reading The Paying Guests in a public place, and a friendly stranger asked me about what I was reading.
"Historical fiction," I answered.
"What era?," she persisted.
"Post-World War II," I answered (this is incorrect, it's post-World War I, but I didn't notice this until the date is explicitly mentioned in the text).
"Oh, what a lovely period! I like books set during or around World War II. Is it a mystery? A romance?"
Here, I began to get even more uncomfortable than I already was. I wasn't that far in, but knowing who the author was, and being able to see the way the wind was blowing, so to speak, I could tell that it was shaping up to be at least partly based around a lesbian romance. Was that the sort of information I should disclose? I didn't know. I answered ambiguously that I wasn't that far in yet.
I don't know, what should I have said? A Google search of the title would probably have come up with that information. If it was a straight romance, I probably just would have said yes...or possibly have given the same "not that far in yet" answer, minus the extra discomfort.
As it turns out, there's elements of both romance and mystery, yet I'm sure this book would fall into the "literary" category.
I picked this up at the library less because of the book than because of the author. Sarah Waters is both a well-known LGBT and literary writer, and I've been meaning to read something of hers for years. The Paying Guests has a characteristic LGBT romance and distinctly period, at times Gothic, feel. Waters is a genius with atmosphere and language. I'm not sure if I've ever read another author who manages to use "plashing" unpretentiously.
The novel opens as Frances and her mother wait for their new boarders, the "paying guests" to arrive. Despite their various "economies," they can no longer afford their bills without help. Though Frances' is the primary perspective, each character has a rich interiority that shapes the largely psychological drama.The reader learns early on that "old maid" (at twenty-six!) Frances is more than she seems, and as her shocking past is gradually revealed, the inevitable doom of the present becomes apparent.
An early moment in the lodgers' sojourn at the house:
But this, she thought...this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs. Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.
She adjusted her pose on the mat, took hold of her cloth, and rubbed hard at the floor. (p. 28)
Recommended to fans of period dramas and realistic depictions of historical lesbian romance.