Behind lace curtains in genteel South London, circa the early 1920s
Although I still feel Sarah Waters never equalled two of her Victorian set novels, Fingersmith and Affinity, this may be partly because most authors have a certain pattern to their work, and if a reader has a familiarity with that author, sooner or later they will be aware of their particular tricks and habits. By the time I read her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, which I found disappointing, and her second world war novel, The Night Watch, she had become predictable, even a little tired, to me, and the rich, complex, exuberance of the first two I read, and their cast of unique, properly quirky and layered characters, so typical of Dickens, Thackeray and Collins, had fallen away into something more run of the mill
I hesitated whether to read The Paying Guests, due to mixed reviews. In the end, I was glad I made the journey, even if this did not properly fascinate until the Second Section.
Set in London just after the First War, Frances Wray and her mother are sliding into genteel poverty. Frances’ brothers were killed in the trenches; her father had made bad investments, and his death leaves the two women nearly penniless. They have a large house, and decide to let out the top floor. Leonard and Lilian Barber, a upper working/lower middle class couple move in.
The slow first part of the book, where I felt most predictability was happening, was the inevitable move towards the major relationship. Complete with several sessions involving a lot of heavy breathing and rummaging beneath clothes which has to be extremely furtive, because deeply shocking and forbidden. Etc.
I did find myself also having to fight off a constant voice which was saying `this is post First World War – why didn’t Frances get a job?’ as a solution for their scrimping poverty. The First War certainly saw the start of women really coming forward in the workplace, so it felt strange that this was not something which seemed to be in anyone’s mind, even more so when a couple of Frances’s friends, from the same class, are in the workplace. But of course, if she had got a job the narrative would not have had the time and space for the secret assignations to happen.
Eventually, there are a couple of quite horrific and cataclysmic events which then take the novel into much darker territory, and that is when I began to find my interest was really engaged, and the book moved away from being a bit Mills and Boon/Black Swan formulaic, and became something much more psychologically intricate – the effects of guilt, shame, terror of discovery, the agonies of conscience, the conflicts between courage and fear, and how shared guilt can destroy relationships.
Although this was all terrific stuff, I was not sufficiently swept up by the novel to stop myself having some questions about realism. Some of which can’t really be explained, due to spoilers. However, there is a section which does demand huge physical strength and fitness, and one of the people who needs this has come quite close to shuffling off this mortal, and it seemed pretty impossible that they would have been able to carry out the task. The `wrap’ of the book also seemed a little contrived; after the tremendous build-up of the psychological journey the central characters were making, it almost felt as if Waters had run out of steam. There is a long courthouse sequence, and how that resolves, did not feel quite as expected. It felt like an ending Waters wanted for the characters, rather than an ending true to reality
This all sounds as if I’m not recommending Waters’ book – well that isn’t the case, it is I think a strong read, just that for me the most interesting and satisfying parts of the novel were after Frances enters the world of the conflicts between self-interest and survival, and the powerful voice of conscience. For me. the bodice heavings before that point, and the resolution at the end pulled me away from surrendering, but there is a great chunk of wonderfully subtle and knotty twists and tugs of contrary feelings, thoughts, desires in the centre of the book, where the central characters and the various clashes of the fine gradations of the English class system made for a compelling read.
This is certainly a book stirring up a fine number of very differing viewpoints, I came to it on the back of an excellent review by Cleopatra Loves Books, who made this one of her books of the year.
And (in my view anyway) those loving the book and those not so loving the book are writing well argued reasons for their responses, sometimes divided by opposite opinions about the same matters. And that is also the case with professional reviews on some of the more lit ficcy papers, as well as us passionate reader bloggers. So whichever way opinion falls, there is a lot of satisfying reading to grapple with here!
I’m also fascinated by the very different ways marketing has been targeted, by the different dust jackets in the UK and (left side) and the States (right side) Europe has chosen to emphasise a noir, thriller aspect, with the dust jacket even looking like the poster for an early Hitchcock movie, whilst the American version suggests tasteful erotica, with its elegant black and white arthouse look
Interesting – most of the reviews I’ve seen have praised one half of the book more than the other, but not always the same half. It seems almost as if there are two different books stuck in there, with genres that possibly don’t fit too well together. I must admit it’s her insistence on always including much ‘bodice heavings’ (lovely phrase!) that always puts me off her. I do hope we get to post-sexual-liberalisationism soon (a new word of which I’m rather proud) and start talking about something a little more interesting…
Lady Fancifull said:
There are of course plenty of 5 star reviews of this as well. I might have liked this more if I had never read any others. Sex scenes are I think notoriously impossible to pull off (perhaps not the choicest turn of phrase) and I do think that less is quite definitely more, otherwise most writers get stuck between over used cliche and the purely factual and mechanistic description of what goes where in anatomical terms. Descriptions which may very well be delciously erotic, because not experienced, to the very young (raiding the naughty books parents hid from prying adolescent eyes) , just are tedious and a little embarrassing for more experienced readers, tutting at a writer’s failure to have moved beyond cliche. Maybe earlier writers (like earlier film-makers) did rather better at eroticism which could only be hinted at, and not graphically shown or described. Hence I guess the prevalence of ‘bad sex writing’ awards, whereas to my knowledge there isn’t a similar ‘bad writing about people having an argument’ ‘bad writing about landscape’ etc awards in the category of ‘bad writing in novels’
I know some reviewers lamented the fact that her previous book, The Little Stranger, did not have the requisite heaves, maybe they are back by popular request from those who expect this from a Sarah Waters book.
I’m not sure whether this would be a for you or not book. It is certainly curate’s egg, but as you point out, the edible bits seem to depend on the reader. The bit I liked (this will really put you off) was the focus on the corroding effects of secrets, lies, guilt, remorse, fear that were almost…………here it comes……RUSSIAN in their intensity! So it was the filling of the book, not the bread on either side that formed its sandwich!
In fact, I removed a bit from yesterday’s review (because I feel I’m becoming boring on the subject now) where I bemoaned the need writers seem to feel to constantly describe the mechanics of sex. All adults know how it’s done, and mostly we all do it pretty much the same way, so unless the author can write it more beautifully than the other 9000 descriptions we’ve all read, why bother? It’s merely a bodily function, and no author persists in describing other bodily functions excessively (well, except Mukherjee in The Lives of Others!). The much more interesting subject is the emotional side where there might at least be some variation.
Funnily enough, the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to read was The Little Stranger and I enjoyed it very much, but as you say most of her fans wanted fumbling…
Lady Fancifull said:
Yes, I had initially forgotten that The Little Stranger was remarkably fumble free. I didn’t really roll my eyes and tut in bored impatience at Fingersmith and Affinity, which I still think her finest because she so understands the structure and language of Victorian literature, but her first, Tipping the Velvet, made into a shock! lesbian sex! TV drama was wearing in the number and predictabliity of rumpy pumpy descriptions, But it was her first novel, so more understandable, particularly at the time it was published.
I do agree that because most of us as adults are well aware of how it happens, graphic descriptions are often predictable and clunky, which presumably is not the effect the author intends.
Hmm, Verghese, in Cutting For Stone, which i enjoyed hugely is enormously graphic about other bodily aspects (cutting them up, mainly) but he is a surgeon, and most surgeons are not brilliant writers with a passion for literature as well as medicine, so I had not read many thousand accounts of surgical procedures, carried out by a major character in his daily work, with the intention to save lives, and teaching students how to perform procedures.
I do hope no readers decide to experiment on their nearests and dearests though!
Lady Fancifull said:
PS, I’m ENORMOUSLY disappointed that you didn’t comment on my Wednesday post, as there was a very very carefully chosen photograph which I picked with you in mind, hoping to lure you to an indiscreet comment (I’m sure you know which, and why – and the refusing to take the bait only shows you are practising discretion)
Haha! I’ve learned my lesson – I can’t bring myself to be rude – I mean, WITTY – about author pics any more… I admit it’s tempting though… 😉
Great review, as ever. I remember my friend’s flat in Glasgow had a freestanding ashtray (one of these “ironic” student decor choices, no doubt – although people inevitably got p***ed and fell over it. V messy.) Yours are much more 20s, I’d imagine. Totally agree with you on the bit requiring physical strength (although Frances was v strong, as I seem to remember her saying she’d waited until her mother went out to carry huge cupboards upstairs…) I’ve often wondered what the different country/different cover deal is; the US one is v stylish, but the UK one matches the hardback covers of her last two. I really enjoyed this book; in fact I felt bereft when I’d finished it. And I liked Frances, she was a good egg. As they used to say. I even laughed out loud at one point, at the party, when the chap said to Frances re Lillian that if he were her husband, he’d spank her bottom, what about you, and she replied something like yes, I’d spank it too. I think he wanted to know if she was single, though. I just loved even reading about 20s cleaning methods. She’s got to be the only author I can say that about! I haven’t written a review as I feel I’d struggle to do the book justice, tbh. (Did you like Len’s double entendres?! Re the garden -“Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?”!)
Lady Fancifull said:
I loved those double entendres, though of course ‘ in real’ I would probably have wanted to punch Len.
Thank you so much for highlighting my review. I love your review and can absolutely can understand the points you make, the bodice heaving was expected and even though this seemed drawn out I do think it created a solid basis for the second half. I got the impression Frances didn’t get a job because her mother wouldn’t approve (even less than Frances doing the housework) and her mother was all she had left of the family. The only bit that confused me slightly was the antipathy for the departed Mr Wray which didn’t seem adequately explained. I have bought the Night Watch which I missed the first time round so we’ll see what I think of that one.
Lady Fancifull said:
Yes I think you are right (reason Frances didn’t get a job) though I would have thought her red knuckles and general bedraggledness would have made her even less of a marriagable asset, and clearly mum had not given up hopes for this. So, something about the reality of that jarred for me. I guess antipathy for Dad came down to disapproval of Frances’s tendency to bohemianism, so she felt stifled, plus, his plunging them unexpectedly into poverty, dashing their class and gender hopes – but yes, i think its vaguely sketched, rather than clearly mapped
I do think the book gave a lot of useful topic for debate, and could no doubt be a good bookclub one too!
Stepheny Houghtlin said:
The work that you put into this excellent blog is generous. Great information, and visual support. Never enough time to read all that is available so admit that when a review points out some problems, I move on hoping to get the best read possible.
Lady Fancifull said:
Thanks Stepheny for those kind words. I think, because I only post reviews of books I think are worth reading I feel a strange kind of guilt and sorrow when the fact I can’t overwhelmingly record admiration and enthusiasm for a book, leads to someone avoiding it! I was pleased I had read the book, just not enough!
I know absolutely what you mean about not enough time, pressure of all the yet to read books all of which call enticingly!
Jilanne Hoffmann said:
Well, this one is definitely a pass. And after reading the discourse between LF and FF, I’ve decided that the verbal tennis match is much more entertaining and informative than the book could possibly ever be!
Lady Fancifull said:
We are looking for a publisher for our ‘ deranged blog ramblings from chocolate loving bloggers’ fanzine
I read Fingersmith but wasn’t bowled over so never had the inclination to read anything further from her but then kept hearing how good this new one was. So I put it on my wish list. The minute I did, all I kept seeing were reviews saying it was disappointing.
Lady Fancifull said:
The responses have been hugely varied. I’m pleased I read it, but very much for the middle section, which was I think where some of the comparisons to Flaubert etc are coming from. Curate’s egg, for sure! I still rate Affinity particularly highly.