In 1922 London, impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house are shaken up in unexpected ways.
Her literary depictions of domestic life, manners, architecture, class structure, the weight of war and the volatility of love all appear as effortless as they are beautifully executed … The Paying Guests unfolds in a deceptively languid fashion, but its meticulous descriptions and period details are neither arbitrary nor superfluous. Instead, they subtly illustrate how horribly constrained women's lives could be, in an era many associate with flappers and Bright Young Things whizzing from one country house weekend to the next … Waters sets her narrative trap carefully, and when she springs it, more than 300 pages in, The Paying Guests shifts into high gear as smoothly and relentlessly as a Vauxhall touring car overtaking a horse and carriage. As in Rebecca, there's a crime of passion, but instead of a low-key inquest conducted by a sympathetic magistrate, there's a court case with all the tabloid furor of the Amanda Knox trial.
Although Waters is definitely up to constructing a big, entertaining story, her strength seems to be in blueprinting social architecture in terms of its tiniest corners and angles, matters measurable by inches rather than feet — small moments we recognize but have never articulated, even to ourselves … The story is laid out along serious lines — postwar hard times, forbidden love, murder, justice — but it is equally a comic novel. The ridiculous martyrdom of Frances’ chores. The tackiness of Lilian’s wardrobe and décor. The mesmerizing ghastliness of her relatives … Perhaps Waters’s most impressive accomplishment is the authentic feel she achieves, that the telling — whether in its serious, exciting, comic or sexy passages — has no modern tinge.
Maintaining our uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lilian alternately as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death … At first it’s easy to fault Waters’ scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lilian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lilian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror toward the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded last year’s landmark decisions.