The Paying Guests
Frances Wray lives with her widowed mother in their respectable London home. It is 1922, and the city is filled with unemployed former soldiers. Frances and Mrs. Wray have suffered challenges. Frances’s brothers died in the war, causing Mr. Wray to lose heart and slide into a depressed convalescence. After he died, his wife and daughter discovered he had mismanaged the family’s finances. Now, without the servants to whom they were once accustomed, Frances works at cleaning and maintaining the home for her elderly (at age 55) mother. However, they realize that they must do something soon about their dwindling resources or they won’t be able to stay in their home. Finally, they reluctantly decide to take in boarders, although they must rearrange their household in order to transform upstairs bedrooms into a tiny apartment.
On the day their paying guests are to arrive, Frances and her mother are on edge. They watch the clock together, Frances occasionally inspecting the rooms awaiting the new tenants, Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple. Frances stands in the Barbers’ sitting room, which was once her mother’s bedroom. She stares out at the street with the feeling that she is soon to embark on a journey.
"THE PAYING GUESTS grabbed me by the throat immediately and would not leave me alone until I had devoured every word. In other words, it is the very definition of a gripping page-turner."
At last, a tradesman’s van pulls up in front of the house, and the renters emerge. Frances steps out onto the porch to greet them. She has only met them once before and is momentarily nonplussed by the sight of two similar young men. Which one is Mr. Barber? Finally, she recognizes his reddish hair and moustache. Mrs. Barber wears a rather gaudy outfit that shows off her figure.
The entire feeling of the Wray household changes, almost immediately, as the Barbers settle into their rooms upstairs. Frances is hyper-aware of music, conversation and other sounds coming from their apartment. She is troubled by watching the young couple move their belongings into her house --- although pleased when Mrs. Barber hands her an envelope holding two weeks’ rent. This money, Frances reminds herself, is the reason for this upset. Yet, the cash seems small compensation as the Barbers pass through the kitchen in order to access the outdoor privy, a situation that makes for much awkward tapping on doors and apologizing. Frances is further discombobulated to find Mr. Barber in the downstairs hallway examining the Wrays’ artwork. While Frances and her mother strive to follow their evening routine that first evening, they conjecture about Mrs. Barber’s background.
When Mrs. Wray heads for bed, she gazes wistfully towards the footsteps above her head, commenting that it could be Noel or John Arthur, the sons she lost in the war, walking around upstairs. This remark fills Frances with sorrow. She yearns to find a brother on the top landing as she climbs the stairs. Instead, she comes upon Mr. Barber. She can see into their living quarters, where she is dismayed to find that garish decorations have taken the place of the Wrays’ refined belongings, with fringed shawls, fake Persian carpets, and other touches strewn everywhere. However, the upheaval in the household belongings will pale into insignificance as Mr. Barber insinuates himself into Frances’s life, while his wife and Frances strike up a tentative friendship.
Suspense builds ominously, and almost unbearably, as emotions flare between the inhabitants of the Wray home. Sarah Waters’s stunning attention to historical and everyday detail convinces readers that they are living in that home, circa 1922, alongside the four residents. Frances’s colorful past is uncovered, bit by bit, revealing her as a complicated and fascinating character. THE PAYING GUESTS grabbed me by the throat immediately and would not leave me alone until I had devoured every word. In other words, it is the very definition of a gripping page-turner.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on September 19, 2014