The Paying Guests review

by On Becoming Anna

Due to that fact that I have an essay due in in two weeks, a dissertation to write, and a future to sort out, I have, very cleverly, decided to write a blog post. I have decided that alongside my more personal posts, I would like to write some reviews too. I have recently realised that my dream is to be paid to do stuff and then write about it, and seeing as I am currently paying a small fortune to read a load of books every week, and then talk about them, I thought I might get some writing practice in, and show off how amazing my views on everything are.

I wait all week to sit and talk about the books I’ve been reading, and although I absolutely adore my course, I never feel like I have talked about them enough. I could discuss books for hours. And seeing as my boyfriend and housemates are so bored by me that they don’t even pretend to listen anymore, I thought writing it down might get some of it out of my system, and maybe entertain anyone that is bored enough to read this. Because I am doing this for fun, I’m not really going to be focusing much on theoretical perspectives or the real heavy ‘Englishy’ stuff as I have to do that for university. I’m just going to be sharing more general views about how I found the reading experience and whether I would recommend it etc.

So, I thought I’d start with a review of The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This is actually the fourth text I have read of hers, as she has featured on every year of my English degree – she’s obviously very important. I had to read this particular text for my seminar this coming Wednesday, and sat down and read the whole SIX HUNDRED pages in about 6 hours.

The story is based around the main protagonist Frances, who must let out part of her house to strangers after the death of her father left her family in a large amount of debt. Frances lives with her mother, and a couple called the Barbers (or Len and Lil), move into the spare rooms in her house. The first few sections focus mainly on the characters’ awkwardness of adjusting to living together, then the story moves into a whirlwind romance, then finally it becomes a crime drama. So, all in all, it’s a bit of a jumpy narrative. I would say that the transitions between these sections of the novel are pretty fluid, and the plot isn’t disturbed by it, but as you can pretty much pinpoint the transition down to a specific chapter, it does feels like two completely different genres smushed into one hefty book.

I do have a lot of praise for Waters however; I find her novels unbelievably pleasing to read. Her writing style is effortlessly simplistic, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Her language just flows across the page, and the plot of her novels unravel beautifully. When I first read Affinity, I was immediately hooked, I mean literally within the first couple of pages, and have read every single one of her books in one sitting (which, considering they are ALL around five-six hundred pages, is really saying something). Reading can sometimes be a bit of a chore, as you’re active when you read; imaging the story yourself, rather than it being forced onto you like when watching a film. Waters has a way of narrating that I forget half the time that I’m even reading. Her language is descriptive and emotive, and I am captivated by her narratives.

The plot of The Paying Guests was exciting in many places, and I did enjoy the novel overall. Her portrayal of feminine companionship is initially very positive and believable, showing them to be superior and more equal to heterosexual relationships, with a lot more sexual gratification and passion. Lil and Frances’ affair read alongside Lil and Len’s relationship is pretty non-comparable in terms of fulfilment and personal promotion. Frances encourages Lil to pursue her own desires, to go to art school and get a job. In this way, Waters promotes lesbian relationships as equal in comparison to heterosexual ones which oppress women and their freedom. On the other hand, however, she does explore how heteronormativity is still concurrent within relational expectations; evidence for this is when Lil takes the walled side of the pavement, letting Frances walk next to the road. In this way, I accepted The Paying Guests more than Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, which in my opinion, often portrayed homosexual relationships as without problem.

However, I did find the plot quite predictable. This may be because I have read so many of Waters’ books, but I have begun to notice some reoccurring incidents. Out of the four novels I have read, Waters’ has indulged in a steamy lesbian love affair (or hinted between some strange incestual female connection in the case of The Little Stranger), written a ridiculously long introduction in which almost nothing of note happens, then a sudden plot twist that occurs in the final pages, and an old house that falls apart in an echo of the plot. The ending also infuriated me. After all the excitement within the last section, the book just ends as if Waters got bored of writing it. I felt cheated of a resolution after I’d hung on for six hundred pages, and I really can’t see what the point of it was. I feel like Water’s alludes to a lot of feminist theories within her work, and this might have been one of them; denying the reader of an obvious beginning, middle and end because that’s too ‘patriarchal’. But I am still furious about it and I DEMAND to know if that person who may or may not have done that thing gets caught or not (I don’t want to be a spoiler).

To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure if I was in love with the book. I did enjoy it, but I found it annoying and predictable, and that the sex was clichéd and obvious. And I think I will be annoyed about the ending for about a week. On the other hand, it was really easy and pleasing to read, and I didn’t have to work at all to understand the plot or figure out the characters. I think that I might have exhausted Sarah Waters for myself. I find her style too familiar and her techniques too repetitive that I don’t think I will be able to come to another of her texts with an open mind. If I was reading these simply for pleasure, and I could turn my academic hat off for five seconds, then I think I would love them and immerse myself in them for days. But if I did that, then I would find reading boring. I mean, what’s the point in doing anything if you can’t criticise it afterwards?