The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

oh, mystery writers, pay attention! this is how you write unbearable suspense: you write characters about whom we care almost as if they were family, and you put them in a fraught and morally dubious position. and then you spin that out in all its shifting emotions, minute by minute, until our poor readerly nerves just about give out.

what a book.

our heroine, Frances, lives in reduced circumstances with her mother in a fraying house, London, 1920s. to make the bills, they take in lodgers–Lillian and Leonard, a not-so-happily married couple. then love blooms in unexpected places, a wonderful kind of love so thrillingly described that only those with cinder hearts will be unmoved. and then disaster strikes.

i’ve read that, for this book, Waters riffed on a historical event, changing things up a bit by altering the sex of our protag. it was a brilliant, brilliant move, because our unexpected lovers are not Frances and Leonard, as one might expect, but Frances and Lillian. like all illicit lovers, they have to do quite a bit of sneaking around, but unlike boy-girl pairs, they can’t even have a clandestine romantic dinner together.

and oh, the claustrophobia of it! Waters does such a superb job of describing just how this unsayable love compresses with the weight of all society’s censure. a modern reader–particularly one under, say, 35–mightn’t have even the tiniest idea of what it’s like to live having to monitor one’s every glance. Waters herself is a lesbian and has undoubtedly lived it to some extent. her charting of Frances’ emotional states is as subtle as a fine watercolor.

and then the disaster happens, about which i won’t say much except that it is an extremely murky event. we know immediately whodunit, but howdunit and whydunit are left waaaay open to interpretation. suddenly cops are everywhere asking impertinent questions and just how will Frances and Lillian stay safe? because the only safety is in secrecy.

do yourself a favor and read the book, get six or seven of your best reader friends to read it, and have a blast debating the moral complexities of it. but i ask you, dear readers, to remember that while we of the theoretically enlightened west no longer (theoretically) force our gay & lesbian relations into dark, suffocating closets, a lot of places in the world still do, and that for many of them, being out means being dead. so do enjoy the book, and spare a loving thought for those whose rights are still not even up to 1920s London.