It's the 1920s in London, just a few years after the end of the first world war. Families are dealing with the losses of loved ones, soldiers are adjusting to civilian life, social unease is strong, and small pockets and financial woes abound. Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances have decided to take on boarders Lilian and Leonard Barber in order to pay the bills. Throughout this arrangement, the four experience a vast amount of trials and changes that forever alter their lives.
What I loved about The Paying Guests was the way in which Waters deal with a many psychological issues that reflect the current customs and ideals of the time period, as well as modern struggles with feelings of shame, guilt, desire, and love. Waters writes with great fluidity, which appears almost poetic at times. She knows exactly how to craft a sentence or phrase to convey the exact emotions she wants, or to hint at exactly what she wants you to feel or know. As a reader, you can truly feel what each character is feeling. You take a journey with Frances as she deals with her life, and this journey slowly morphs and begins to envelop the life of Lilian, which allows us to become fully immersed in the story.
In a similar manner, Waters effectively depicts the entire time period involving the strict class system, elitism of the upper class, and a variety of other details that aren't always actively noticed, but greatly assist in creating a perfect setting and atmosphere. The plot line is both complex and simple at the same time; the ideas and elements are simple, but the execution, emotions, and overarching themes and ideas are much deeper than ever expected. It is darker than it is light, but not overly so.
Waters crafts characters with very strong, distinct personalities.Frances is a strong-willed woman who is not afraid to push aside some of the conventions of society in order to take of herself, her mother, and her household (such as by cleaning her own household - quite shocking, yes. I also get down on my hands and knees to clean areas of the floor sometimes - scandalous). Frances is dynamic in an unconventional way. She doesn't undergo any huge coming-of-age type change, nor does her personality alter; instead, she is changed by the hardships and obstacles that she must overcome in order to be with who she loves, and the consequences that result from that desire. Mrs. Wray, Frances' mother, is quite a bit different from Frances - she is much more rule- and tradition-abiding than her daughter, and has quite a delicate heart and frame. She loves her family dearly, but doesn't appear to be the type who would go to extreme or dangerous lengths to save them.
Lastly, we have the Barbers - Lilian and Leonard. Lilian is a young woman trying to maintain a happy lifestyle, but secretly struggles with being stuck in a marriage and life that she doesn't want. Lilian is a very complex character, and Waters does very careful work to slowly peel away her layers to eventually reveal her innermost self. Lilian slowly discovers herself and opinions at almost the same times as the reader does, which creates a very enthralling and captivating experiences. Leonard is also depicted a cheery man, and a rather flirtatious one at that. We have hints at his attractions to other women in his not-so-subtle flirting with Frances. Leonard is also a rather sexist man who seems to strongly follow the traditional customs of a man being in charge of his wife, which is evident as the novel progresses. Leonard floats in the background here and there throughout the beginning of the novel, but slowly becomes more and more important as the story goes on. Just as we peel back the layers and learn about Lilian, we do the same with Leonard, but in a slightly different and more indirect manner.
I won't lie, there are some slower moments throughout this novel. There are events that just seem to drag on and on and you wish would just move on already. This, however, is one of the things that I think makes this novel brilliant. As Frances and Lilian struggle with a major, devastating event (I won't go into too much detail - no spoilers!), we are meant to be sitting, feeling just as anxious, exhausted, and fidgety as they feel. It really sets the overall atmosphere of each scene throughout the book.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this The Paying Guests and have decided to give it four-and-a-half stars. I did love this book, and struggled a lot between four and five stars; it just barely missed my five-star mark. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, complex characters, or page-turning reads!