The Shiny Book Club – The Paying Guests – Now let’s discuss…

Introduced by Simon

Paying guestGet ready for the second round of The Shiny Book Club! For this issue (though the discussion will take place in our Extra Shiny issue in about six weeks’ time) the book chosen by the SNB editors is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. It’s pretty long, but it’s a page-turner, and we think there is lots to discuss.

You can read Harriet’s review of The Paying Guests from Issue 3, if you need persuading. In brief, the novel is set in 1922. Frances Wray lives with her mother; her brothers have died at war, and (less regretted by her) Frances’ father has also recently died. Too respectable to work, but too poor to maintain their standards, they have had to accept paying guests. These turn up in the form of Mr and Mrs Barber. They are more or less an ordinary upper-working class family. He (Len) makes jokes which are borderline vulgar and has a steady but uninteresting job; she (Lilian) is emotional and artistic, hoping to better herself.

From there, the novel includes both romance and high drama. I shall say no more, for fear of spoiling it, but here are some questions to consider as you read. Come back and discuss the book with fellow readers when Extra Shiny is published!

1. If you’ve read other novels by Sarah Waters, how do you feel this fits into her existing work? What similarities and differences did you notice?

2. How do you think Sarah Waters deals with questions of morality in The Paying Guests?

3. Domestic details are very important in the novel: what effect do you think the house and its contents had on the characters and on the reader?

4. How does Waters deal with class issues in the novel, and how important do you think this aspect of The Paying Guests is?

5. The ending… was it what you expected, or were you surprised? What impact do you think it has on the rest of the narrative?

* * * * *

This discussion will remain open until our next issue in early October – so do join in any time.
Please be warned – the comments below may contain spoilers!

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BUY The Paying Guests in paperback from the Book Depository.

24 Comments

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  2. Anne

    Very excited to read this. Kindly let me know the completion date & the date the discussion officially begins.

      1. Anne

        Unfortunately the paperback doesn’t release in Canada until Sept 8/15. I really dislike lugging around hardcovers. But, in hopes of taking part in this discussion with everyone, I did put a hold on the hardcover from my local library. To date, still no book from the library, so I pre-ordered the paperback & will jump in as soon as it arrives.
        Sadly this means I can’t follow the discussion until after I’ve read it – I like the element of surprise when I read a book.
        Enjoy & hopefully I’ll be able to particpate next time!

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  4. I’ll get the discussion started then shall I with a few reflections on Simon’s questions above:
    1. I think it fits really well into Waters’ oeuvre
    2. The morality question is interesting – it’s the same as in Eastenders at the moment! Would you cover up a crime to protect the one you love? Yes – makes for more exciting literature / viewing.
    3. Thank goodness for TV and computers – else I’d feel obliged to fill my time cleaning. It must have been a real chore back then – all that keeping up appearances.
    4. Post-war society is changing slowly, but the mother is old school – she says, after the Barbers start paying their rent ‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’
    5. I was surprised and not surprised at the ending. No spoilers though!

  5. Victoria

    The ending is the bit I most want to talk about! So I’ll have to be a bit spoiler-y. I thought how brave Sarah Waters was, putting Frances and Lilian in such an unsympathetic light. For me, it worked because I felt their characters were so consistently drawn. Frances had nothing in her life at all that interested her, so she was bound to push too hard to secure the relationship with Lilian. Particularly after feeling she’d lost out on Christina.

    Frances is devastated after Leonard’s death, but it’s still understandable that Lilian should be the one to collapse. She’s lost her husband (however ambivalent she felt), learned about his adultery and gone through a miscarriage. Towards the end, when she puts her hat and coat on, preparing to go to the police station, Frances is the one to stop her and say they’ll wait and see. So I felt that in some ways, Lilian was actually the stronger of the two, even if just because she would follow a higher authority without questioning.

    It was interesting, though, that I happened to read an essay about ‘Getting Away With It’ by Adam Phillips while reading this novel. Phillips says that art is the place where no one gets away with anything – and it’s true to an extent in this novel, because we readers know exactly what Frances and Lilian have done. He also says most art is about showing us that we don’t get away with things, that there is some punishment in the end. The Paying Guests is unusual because the two women do get away with their crime, and I wonder how that affects readers? Is that going to make people feel less sympathetic ultimately? Do we have a very strong moral code when we read, or would we always rather see our characters win through?

    1. They only get away with it on the surface though – surely it will haunt them forever. I’d have been happy whichever way Waters took the ending, but I definitely felt more for Lilian than Frances.

        1. Frances was embittered from the start really (mind you who wouldn’t being put in her situation), whereas Lilian was firstly in thrall to Len, then Frances, then became the stronger of the two. I’d have liked Frances more if she’d had the courage to leave or get rid of her mother. Ha ha!

          1. Victoria

            Oh boy, that mother. I longed for Frances to leave, too! The mother really got up my nose, being so precious about everything Frances had to do to keep them going, and yet utterly helpless herself. I’m sure that was a very astute and accurate portrait, though, of how people of her class and situation behaved.

  6. I actually really loved the ending! I thought the two of them sitting together uncertainly on Blackfriars Bridge was poignant and not too overtly happy; you get the sense that they’re going to try to make a life together but that it’s not going to be easy, but they might just manage some arrangement. When I reviewed this for Quadrapheme last year I wrote that it echoed the sorts of relationships that were brought further into the public eye by, e.g., the Bloomsbury set, around the same time. The murder may have been a wee bit melodramatic (although I thought Waters’s writing was so phenomenally evocative of the terrible strain of living in constant fear that I didn’t really care), but the ending definitely struck just the right tone for me.

    1. Simon

      I definitely agree with you, Elle – the high drama was worth it for all that wonderful writing and how tense it felt. I think the ending surprised me because it didn’t follow Waters’ usual twist-and-conclusion style. But, in some ways, that ended up feeling like a twist because of that!

  7. I agree with Elle — I liked the ending — in fact I often rather like endings that don’t really conclude anything. Obviously I loved the novel though as I said in my review I found the account of the murder and its immediate aftermath a terrific shock. When I read it I hadn’t encountered any reviews, so it came as a complete surprise. I think this is in some ways Waters’ most daring novel, as she switches around so much between wonderful historical/social detail, intense sexual encounters, and of course that murder and then the trial. Yet of course they all blend together wonderfully well. I didn’t at all take against Frances, felt a lot of sympathy for her (and even for her mother, who though she is ghastly, is just unable to shake off the views and attitudes of her upbringing and earlier life), but I also really liked and admired Lilian — I agree with Victoria that she does come out in many ways the stronger of the two.

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  9. Brigid

    I thought this was a terrific novel and and much preferred it to The Little Stranger,her last book. This, like the Night Watch, is firmly set in a time and place and the dull genteel poverty of Frances’s life in Champion Hill was , I thought, very believable.I did race through it and had to go back later and re-read sections I hadn’t picked up on such as when Francis throws the dead mouse whilst Len watches , foreshadowing his own death.

    The morality is a tricky one , I did want them to get off but not at the expense of Spencer’s conviction so her ending although maybe a cop-out worked for me. You do invest in the characters so that even before Len’s infidelity was clear you are rooting for Francis and Lilian. I did wonder as Lilian grew more dominant whether she was using Francis as a catalyst to justify ending her pregnancy and force a confrontation with Len.

    Does anyone think Lilian and Frances had a future or would Frances ‘bottle’ it and return to Mother ?

    1. Victoria

      Isn’t that the million dollar question! I’ve turned it around often since finishing the book, and I think that after all they’ve been through, they would have to try and make a go of it. Otherwise everything they’ve been through was for nothing. But I do think their relationship would always be tainted by guilt, and staying together would remind them every day of what they’d done. So, a sort of resolution without closure.

      I agree with you – this is a terrific novel, and one in which you can’t help but become thoroughly caught up with the characters.

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  11. Michael Louis

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  12. Icewineanne

    No idea about these love spell comments. Are they related to the book? I finally have a new pb copy. Can’t wait to begin reading. Have to finish my Tana French book first

  13. Icewineanne

    Will finally be reading this, my book club has selected it as their Feb book – yeay! This is an in-person group, which motivates everyone to read it. I’m really excited to read & have an in-depth discussion about it.
    Sadly on-line discussions just don’t cut it.

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