Some novels are so good, so gripping or shattering that they leave you uncertain whether you should have ever started them. You open “The Paying Guests” and immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Sarah Waters’s silken prose. Nothing jars. You relax. You turn more pages. You start turning them faster. Before long, you resemble Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest: You cannot choose but read. The book has you in thrall. You will follow Waters and her story anywhere. Yet when that story ends, you find yourself emotionally sucked dry, as much stunned as exhilarated by the power of art.
“The Paying Guests” opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year-old Frances and her mother, Mrs. Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead — two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished. They are in debt. The servants are long gone, and Frances now drudges in their stead. Mrs. Wray tries to keep up appearances but is bewildered by a world she doesn’t understand:
“Her mother was at the stove, lifting the kettle from the hot-plate with the faintly harried air she always had when left alone in the kitchen; she might have been a passenger on a stricken liner who’d just been bundled into the engine room and told to man the gauges.”
To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests.” Except for Frances’s bedroom, they turn over the entire upstairs to a young married couple, the Barbers. Len is a hail-fellow-well-met sort, distinctly vulgar, working as a clerk in an insurance office. His wife, Lilian — he calls her Lil — is in her early 20s, rather pretty and, as Frances says, “nice.”
By this point, the reader recognizes that Waters’s novel is, in part, about the aftershocks of the Great War, especially as they affect the educated, upper-middle class and its young women in particular. Frances — our main viewpoint character — deeply longs for a life of her own. As she tells Mrs. Barber, during the war she wanted to change the world and “put things right.” For a while, she says, “one believed in . . . transformation. One looked ahead to the end of the War and felt that nothing could ever be the same. Nothing is the same, is it? But in such disappointing ways. And then, the fact is, I had had — There had been someone — a sort of proposal.”
In truth, besides participating in suffrage demonstrations and throwing her shoes at a member of Parliament, Frances fell in love with a girl named Christina. The two made plans to live together, but the deaths in the Wray family and her mother’s neediness resulted in Frances abandoning those dreams. Now sharing digs with an art teacher named Stevie, Christina has settled into being just a good friend.
To the reader, Frances comes to seem an emphatically good friend. We are in her head throughout the novel, privy to her every thought and feeling. She is stoic and sensitive, hardworking and full of common sense, and yet still eager for something more than domestic servitude and the life of a spinster daughter. Waters wants us to admire Frances, even to fall in love with her. And we do. She, in her turn, falls in love with Mrs. Barber.
“The Paying Guests” is structured like a three-act play. In the first act, we follow the evolving relationship between Frances and Lilian Barber. I’ll talk a bit more about that in a moment. But in the second and third acts, their growing love is severely tested by an unforeseen shock, which shouldn’t be revealed, nor should its aftermath. In effect, a novel that initially seems as if it might have been written by E.M. Forster darkens into something by Dostoevsky or Patricia Highsmith. It also becomes unputdownable.
Not that the first part is less so; it’s simply slower, more leisurely in its depiction of a troubled marriage and two sad-hearted women who gradually look to each other for companionship, a little conversation, an occasional picnic together. Len, as you might guess, keeps eyeing Frances in his laddish way, frequently touching her arm or back, sometimes making double-entendres when speaking to her. At the same time, Mrs. Wray and her friend Mrs. Playfair both scheme to introduce Frances to eligible young men. They are pleased when Lilian gives Frances a new haircut and helps brighten up her appearance.
For many pages of “The Paying Guest,” the reader just skims along, enjoying the details of 1920s English life and the shy, tentative intimacy between Frances and Lilian. Where will it all lead, we wonder? Every so often, though, Waters develops a longer dramatic set piece. The first is a drunken, raucous evening with the Barbers, culminating in Len forcing his gentle wife to play a salacious, striptease version of Snakes and Ladders. Afterward, Frances is haunted by the memory of a raised skirt and a silk stocking slowly being unrolled, down a thigh, a knee, a calf, a lifted foot.
The second big scene is a party thrown by Lilian’s blowsy mother and sisters, to which Len begs off, claiming an insurance society dinner. There, the two young women laughingly dance together, and a chap named Ewart flirts with Frances. Noticing this, Lilian says: “You’ve made a conquest there, haven’t you? He’s taken a real shine to you.” And Frances quietly answers, “It’s your shine.” Lilian asks what she means. “He’s only taken a shine to me because I’ve taken a shine to you. It’s your shine, Lilian.” Waters continues:
“Lilian’s expression changed. She dropped her gaze, parted her lips. Her heart beat harder, jumping in the hollow at the base of her throat in that percussive way that Frances had seen once before. And when it had jumped six times, seven times, eight, nine, she looked up into Frances’s eyes and said, ‘Take me home, will you?’
“There was something to the way she said it: a complicity, an assent.”
But when the two women do reach home, they discover the house ablaze with activity. Len has been knocked down in the street and his face bloodied by, he says, an unknown assailant, probably a disaffected veteran. The magic of the evening is quickly lost, and Lilian is apparently pulled back into her marriage. Or is she? From this point on, Waters’s novel accelerates and intensifies; everything grows more physical. There will be lots more blood, and dreams will turn nightmarish.
Sarah Waters has regularly celebrated love between women since her 1998 first novel, “Tipping the Velvet.” (Its evocative title is a Victorian sexual expression.) In “The Paying Guests” she has written both a beautifully delineated love story and a darkly suspenseful psychological novel. While I’ve been coy about revealing too much about how the plot develops, I will just whisper that the reader is in for a seriously heart-pounding roller-coaster ride.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
The Paying Guests
By Sarah Waters
Riverhead. 566 pp. $28.95