The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
The Great War is over, but tragedy and hunger still haunt 1922 London. On Champion Hill, the Wray family’s once-upon-a-posh life has vanished; most notably, all the men are gone. The brothers became casualties of war, the father died leaving substantial debts, and the servants have been duly dismissed. Bereft and struggling, the widowed Mrs. Wray and her no-longer-considered-young daughter Frances are left to take lodgers into their once stately home. These titular ‘paying guests’ are a young couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, who are not quite of the Wrays’ social status.
The forced-together foursome are initially, understandably uncomfortable. Cautiously, Frances and Lilian, just a few years apart in age, begin a tentative friendship. What begins as much needed companionship for two unlikely, isolated souls – a fun-loving, bored young wife and a discontented woman made old before her time – moves quickly to something else, something more, something fatal. Because on Champion Hill, all the men go missing …
If the title sounds familiar, the cover seem like you’ve seen it before, that’s probably because amidst the barrage of year-end, best-of lists, Paying Guests is almost always included. Welsh-born, London-domiciled author Sarah Waters is certainly well-represented on bookshelves with five award-winning, bestselling novels before Guests; she’s also a three-time shortlister for the coveted Man Booker Prize and her first four titles have each been adapted for British TV.
Beyond all the nods and lauds and hype, the very best detail about Guests is, ironically, its audible rendition as performed by the sublimely extraordinary actor Juliet Stevenson [if you ever get a chance to see her on stage, RUN to the theater and beg, borrow, steal, just get a ticket any way you can]. Waters is a chronicler of details and minutiae; Stevenson knows just how to fuse such tiny parts to actualize entire worlds. Waters’ words, Stevenson’s voice prove to be a perfect pairing in creating a literary extravaganza that is part family drama, part social treatise, part love story, part thriller … all of which Stevenson adroitly navigates through 21.5 hours (covering almost 600 pages) with charm and desperation, playfulness and threats, promises and betrayals – a mesmerizing gift to both author and reader indeed.