Look! A Book! : The Paying Guests
I was completely unfamiliar with Sarah Waters before picking up The Paying Guests, but after reading a synopsis of the novel and a short bio of Waters not only was I reading The Paying Guests at a breakneck pace, I had put holds on two of her other novels. I raved about Waters at my book club, "HAVE YOU HEARD OF SARAH WATERS?!" I enthusiastically screeched to my unsuspecting friends. "THIS BOOK IS SO GREAT I'M GOING TO TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT." Note: I did not ask if anyone wanted to hear about it. They were going to hear about it. This is how you know I'm really, really into something.
First, a little background on Sarah Waters. Waters started out as an academic (just like Diana Gabaldon, another author I will evangelize about at length). Her PhD thesis is titled Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present. Her research inspired her to write fiction, and all but one of her novels "contain lesbian themes" (as wikipedia puts it). I mean, so far I've only read The Paying Guests, but I'd classify it as a book about lesbians with peripheral hetero characters. "Lesbian themes" makes me think of a token gay friend or a scene or two of sexual tension between female BFFs. Here's a quote directly from Waters that I love: "I'm writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It's right there at the heart of the books." Lesbian themes? YA OUT. Lesbian agenda? YAAAAS.
When I was excitedly synopsizing The Paying Guests for my captive book group I'm sure I had full-blown crazy eyes and was manically waving my hands around. I'll try to contain myself slightly here, but I make no promises. The Paying Guests is about Frances, a spinster (She's about 27) who lives with her mother in a London suburb (or just an area of London? I'm not the one to answer this. Frances takes public transit into London is all I know for sure.) Frances's brothers died in the Great War and her father recently passed as well, leaving her mother with hella debts. To make ends meet, Frances and her mother need to take in lodgers, who they refer to as "paying guests" to make it seem less shameful. The couple that moves in are young, lively, and definitely stir things up in the house.
This is an "original one-panel illustration review" by Alison Bechdel for Public Books. You can read Bechdel's thoughts on The Paying Guests by following this link (She too is blown away by Waters gift for world building).
Frances finds herself attracted to Lilian, the wife, and Lilian returns her affections. The two begin a secret affair. Leonard, Lilian's husband, is a real creep, and you pray that Lilian will just leave his skeevy ass and run off into the lesbian sunset with Frances, who deserves better than to live in her dusty old family home with her aging mother. Alas, it's 1922, Lilian has just discovered that she's pregnant, and then there's a MURDER! (Apparently, while describing the plot to the book club, I announced "MURDER!" with "glee.")
The Paying Guests in a long book, and if you're not into period pieces the beginning might be a bit tedious, but Waters is so marvelous at world building I really didn't mind a bit. The way I thought of it while reading: If the BBC makes a miniseries of The Paying Guests (which they should because it would be amazing), literally everything they need is in the source material. Production design, costumes, character - It's all right there. Your mind's eye is flooded with imagery and Waters is so gifted at guiding you through this perfectly crafted world, it's truly amazing. I have such a clear idea of what the house looks like, and was delighted when I saw Alison Bechdel's illustration and saw that Lilian and Leonard's sitting room looked to her exactly as it looked to me. Because that's how it looks. The only difference was that I never pictured Leonard with a mustache - frankly because I never pictured him in detail all. This is a book with a lesbian agenda, after all.