Strangers, lovers, all the same

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First Posted: 9/21/2014

A great book captivates you — pulls you in as though you have fallen somewhere into the plot. Author Sarah Waters is a master of this premise — a heady task she proves in her latest historical novel, “The Paying Guests”. Waters takes readers on a journey through the past — we begin reading late at night, only to find ourselves eyes-wide-open, completing the book in the early dawn.

Waters, who has been thrice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, introduces the intricately beautiful and balanced thriller that focuses on life after death, identity, love, murder, and justice. The novel has bits of history, eroticism, and suspense — all taking place in 1920s London following the whirlwind of World War I. Frances Wray, our precocious and selfless 26-year-old protagonist, has left her heavenly life behind to take after her middle-aged mother, matriarch, Mrs. Wray.

While the first portion of the novel gives readers a glimpse into the Wray life prior to their losses, we soon envision the wreckage of post-World War I. Conflict and poor health has left both women and home in near-devastation having lost all the men in their household. Having lived a life of comfort with servants much of their lives, Mrs. Wray is experiencing great difficulty managing her new outlook on life. Without the necessary income, both women must now make a lasting effort. Together, they make the decision to open their home to lodgers. Here we are introduced to Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple who will change the Wray’s lives forever.

If you have read Waters’ previous works, you are aware that her plots often touch upon controversy of the given timeframe. Without going into too much detail, a socially forbidden love affair transpires, both romantic and full of excitement. One might be disposed to judgment of the affair, but we fall in love with the characters, understanding and growing with them and their situation. In many ways, we root for their success but know that all good things must come to an end. As a thriller, the novel takes a sudden turn with a series of grisly events that emphasizes how intense love, much like war, can often leave behind a trail of ruin.

Regardless of what genres Waters has been linked to, her novels are far from typical. Not only does her work seek to highlight the strength and independent nature of women, but also demonstrate that history has always exuded pockets of divergence. Waters leaves readers with a lasting impression, pining for her next thriller.