‘The Paying Guests’ Book Review

The Paying Guests Summary

Set in 1922, London is a hub of tension as ex-servicemen are disillusioned while those without employment and the hungry are in pursuit of change. In South London, a Camberwell villa in Champion Hill, bereft of servants, husbands, and brothers, soon becomes a lodger. The owner and widow, Mrs. Wray, in the company of her spinster daughter, Frances, are forced to turn the villa into a lodge. The routine nature of activities in the house is soon shaken by the arrival of Leonard Barber and his wife, Lilian, a couple who are part of the class of clerks at the time. 

As a spinster, Frances does not have much to expect and is presented a stark contrast of Lilian, a consummate of Leonard who adorns a curvaceous figure, pretty, and is a clear representation of a conventional wife. However, Frances is, to say the least, an embodiment of a politicized, and unmarried woman who is the woman figure of the new era. Their differences have a huge impact on their interaction as the novel progresses. Lilian’s role as one half of the “clerk class” marriage is questioned. She becomes entangled with Frances, an affair that leads to an unfortunate outcome. 

The end of World War I sees the engulfing of hundreds of thousands of British lives thereby leaving the nation reeling in devastation. Frances, an intelligible, resourceful, and reliable young woman, plays companion to her widowed mother. Waters slowly builds on the plot, providing a gradual assemblage of routine moments that lead to an explosion of love, although one that is far from being conventional. Frances develops a liking for Lilian and the two actualize their feelings toward with a kiss. However, their love affair turns into a crime story as with Leonard suffering the brunt of the uncommissioned love story between his wife and Frances.  

Key Themes

Lesbian Love 

The Paying Guests’ synopsis provides the reader with an outline of events that depict the gradual, but detailed development of a love affair between two women. The destructive nature of World War I has left Fances and her 55-yeard old mother, Mrs. Wray, destitute and in desperate need for sustenance. Their resolve to turn their house into a lodge sets the stage for the encounter between Frances and Lilian. The incidence of France’s affection toward Lilian is noted in Waters’ description of when Frances catches a glimpse of Lilian’s flesh noting, “her kimono parted… giving an alarming suggestion of the rounded, mobile, unsupported flesh inside”. 

Their first kiss way over the 200th page where Frances actualizes her desire toward Lilian. It turns out that despite her married status, Lilian is also party to the kind of relationship that is implicitly expressed through France’s advances towards her. Yet another scene that proves Waters’ exploration of lesbian love is when Lilian takes her first bath, an event that plunges Frances into a fantasy world. The longing and wishing for Frances is expressive of Waters’ intent to not spare any details for the reader. Further, the aspect of being detailed creates an imaginary effect thereby allowing the reader to visualize the events of each scene as it unfolds. 

Gender Roles 

The theme of social status cannot be ignored as it plays a crucial role in promoting the friendship and ensuing love triangle between Lilian, Leonard and Frances. The theme is supported by the coming to life of a evocation of women as the sole caretakers of the home. The war has resulted in man-less households, thereby leaving widows and daughters to fend for themselves. It is through such events that Frances and her mother find themselves turning their once coveted villa into a lodge, a place where they house individuals from different walks of life. 

The connection that Lilian and Frances have translates into a story of queer companionship which is not yet appreciated or recognized in England. As the conventional wife, Lilian is expected to fulfill her obligation of giving birth and crowning their marriage with beautiful children. However, as the story unfolds, it is revealed that Lilian is not of the idea of procreating, a feeling that she cannot freely express to her husband. She is torn between her freedom and possibility of becoming a couple with Frances or living in an unsatisfactory marriage with Leonard. The Paying Guests reveals the desire and motivation to break away from traditional gender roles whereby a woman is not confined by what is socially approved, but rather what she prefers and is in her liking. 

Fatality of Love 

A review of The Paying Guests cannot be complete without paying attention to the gruesome outcome of the shared love between Frances and Lilian. It is, without a doubt, expressed that the two are in genuine awe of each other. However, upon revelation that Lilian is pregnant, things get heated and the two conjure a plot to for Lilian to have an abortion. At this particular point, Frances faces a dilemma of monstrous proportion. While Lilian is not new to the predicament of having a baby that she does not want, Frances is yet to come to terms with the potentiality of losing favor in her lover’s eyes. However, the plot thickens as Frances and Lilian resolve for the latter to get an abortion so that she can be rid of the yet to be seen shackles that bind her to Leonard. 

During the day of the abortion, Leonard comes home to a shocking scene with Lilian looking as if almost dead. On the other hand, Frances is the only member of Lilian’s medical team which raises questions about her reluctance to seek medical assistance. The ensuing argument leads to Lilian whacking Leonard on the head with a standing ashtray. Even in her depraved condition, she manages to silence Leonard, and possibly create a seemingly unlikely future for the two as lovers. 

Final Thoughts

Perhaps Waters’ great accomplishment in the story is the feel of authenticity weaved into each scene without a taste of modern tinge. The serious, comic, sexy and in some cases, exciting passages are not only provocative, but also creatively crafted to allow for a raw adventure as the reader walks through the journey that ensues between Lilian and Frances. The domesticity of the novel emphasizes the domination of gender roles in a society that is rigid against accepting the kind of love that the two women share. Both Frances and Lilian come out as heroines as they launch an audacious attempt to live through a love that is all the more fulfilling, but then again so rare. 

However, as a consummate storyteller, Waters is reserved as she refrains from investing in a fireworks display of the entire novel. While she does bring an end to the old-fashioned husband through the death of Leonard, she does not allow for a hopeful ending with Frances and Lilian together as a couple. In this instance, Waters could be the victim of the influence of dominant social values which harbored the expression of such kind of love. 

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