Reading The Paying Guests is like walking into Season 3 of Downton Abbey, minus whatever posh is left. Or… maybe it’s more like a first-person female view from within The Great Gatsby (again, minus the posh). It’s not exactly beach reading, despite all of the scandal it contains; it passes for literature – in fact, it’s arguably made of much higher quality writing than Gatsby.
Set in 1922 post-war London, the opening scenes denote threadbare respectability in the houshold of a young woman named Frances, who is keeping a house for her mother after the deaths of her father and both brothers. Funds are tight, bills are piling, and to make ends meet Frances decides that they should take in paying guests. She has the upstairs of their home converted into an apartment, with the only shared area to be the water closet.
On finding a suitable young couple (Len and Lilian Barber) to let out the upstairs apartment, mother and daughter attempt to establish the proper level of familiarity – in small instances, neither of them is quite certain what the appropriate level of distance is between them and the strangers in such close proximity to them. They all see one another in passing, they all hear one another through walls and ceilings. Inevitably, a friendship soon springs up between Frances and the young Lilian Barber, and their small intimacies soon lead to larger ones, resulting in some very elegantly written sensual scenes between the two of them. At one point in the book, Frances tells Lilian, “Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”
There’s a lot of beauty admidst the squalor in this book, and I struggled – as I suspect readers are meant to – with balancing the moral aspects of Frances and Lilian’s affair. I have no qualms about same-sex coupling, but I do strongly dislike the dishonesty involved in their relationship. There are countless small deceits between Frances and her mother, Lilian and her husband, Lilian and Frances. After their first interlude, Lilian says “It didn’t seem strange, it didn’t seem wrong. I didn’t think of Len, [her husband] not for a moment. I know it’s wicked of me, but I didn’t. It doesn’t seem anything to do with him. It doesn’t seem anything to do with anyone but us, does it?”
Deceit may be the largest theme of the book, as it underlies every element of the plot throughout. The small deceits finally crescendo about halfway through the book and a tragic episode leaves Frances, detectives, and the reader trying to untangle them to reach the true meaning of it all.
All in all, I’d recommend this book to anyone able to tolerate a morally questionable protagonist for sake of probing deeper questions of meaning – or, for sake of a well-crafted story. I can’t say that I was left satisfied with the ending, but maybe you will be.
As always, all of the books I write about are purchased for my own gratification and I receive no compensation for my reviews. If you do decide to read The Paying Guests, I’d be thrilled if you would purchase it through my link as I will receive an infinitesimal commission if you do.