Jan. 7th, 2016

grimrose_eilwynn: (Default)
I finished a 500-and-some-odd page book in two and a half weeks of winter break, and I'm here to write a review. The book is "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters.

Ahoy, matie. There be spoilers below.

"The Paying Guests" is really about the evolution of a relationship -- a lesbian relationship set in London in the 1920's. Frances Wray and her aging mother used to be very wealthy, but have fallen on hard times and have to take in boarders. Their boarders turn out to be a handsome young couple who on the outside seem to have the perfect life.

But looks can be deceiving. Both sides are hiding things. Frances's father squandered the family fortune, her brothers died in World War I, and she's had brushes with the law in the past at pacifist and feminist protest rallies and has had to turn away from a previous lesbian relationship to take care of her mother. Meanwhile, the young couple, the Barbers, have a crumbling marriage based on lies, adultery, and lost babies. (After miscarrying the first time, Mrs Barber actually gets an illegal abortion at two different points because she doesn't want her husband's baby, and one of the abortions is described in rather brutal terms.) Neither Miss Frances Wray nor Mrs Lilian Barber seem to have a happy life.

But they find happiness in each other. They begin a secret relationship, which is evolved slowly, and rather than this being idealized and romanticized, it's quickly shown that this falls apart. First, it's made quite explicit that carrying on any sort of homosexual relationship is insanely hard in this time period. But there's more. Mr Leonard Barber finds out about his wife's adultery, and -- quite hypocritically, since he's committed adultery himself -- he tries to strangle Frances. Lilian responds by killing him from behind. The ensuing scandal as they try to cover up the truth of the death from the police nearly tears the two apart as they begin criticizing and second-guessing each other's motives, the strain and stress of their crime weighing on each of them. (One interesting point: Lilian claims the death was accidental and she just wanted to hurt her husband, but she also got a great deal of money and newfound freedom out of his death, so Frances isn't sure whether or not to believe her. Since it's all from Frances's point of view, we never really know what to think of Lilian either. This is never quite resolved. Lilian's motives remain mysterious, perhaps even to herself.)

A few thoughts on the book:

You can't help but dislike Frances and Lilian for the last third of the book. You don't feel like you're on their side anymore. A young boy is about to be convicted for their covered-up crime, but they're going to wait until he's committed to the gallows before admitting their guilt. When he's set free by the court, they never admit what they did at all. It's a triumph for the characters -- they get to be together and at least somewhat patch up their relationship at the end -- but it's also a moral failure, and the characters seem very aware of that. Basically, they get away with at least involuntary manslaughter in order to be together. That the death was in self-defense is only part of the puzzle.

I didn't really like Lilian and Frances's relationship -- until the very end. When after it all, they have that quiet moment together when they sit in alcove on the bridge and watch the passersby, close together, and a completely silent understanding passes between them. Paradoxically, even though you've stopped liking the characters, you like the relationship. It carries a heaviness and subtext that the previous, somewhat childish relationship lacked. I liked the relationship better that way -- I'm not sure what that says about me.

The pacing was a bit odd. It was slow, of course, I've said that, but for most of the book it worked. For that last third, though... it just dragged on and on and on. I'm not sure if that was intentional, to get us into the characters' trapped mindset, or if it's just a failure on the part of the author. But either way, that last section involving the murder trial and investigation centered on the young boy was torturous and agonizing in its slowness.

Also, shoutout to the deliciously complex relationship Frances has with her mother. I really liked that part. Mrs Wray in herself is a bit boring, your typical friendly and gullible little old lady used to being wealthy and Churchgoing and doing charities, but put her together with her newfound lack of money and her rebellious yet responsible and duty-bound daughter Frances... oh, and interesting things happen.

Overall, it was a good book, as you can see by the fact that I read it in less than three weeks. I would recommend it to others.

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Hopeless Dreamer

March 2016

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