THE PAYING GUESTS, by Sarah Waters. Riverhead, 566 pp., $28.95.
It's been a while since a book kept me up until 3:30 a.m., but "The Paying Guests" grabbed me and would not let me go until I turned page 566 and closed the cover with a sigh. The wonderfully melodramatic plot, the brilliant characterization of protagonist Frances Wray, the vivid depiction of the zeitgeist in post-WWI London -- each of these elements was equally responsible for the kidnapping of this unsuspecting reader, as masterminded by British novelist Sarah Waters, a three-time Booker Prize finalist.
"The Barbers had said they would arrive by three." See how innocently it begins? Having lost both her brothers in the war, and her father shortly after, 27-year-old Frances is forced to inform her mother that the only way they can make ends meet is to take in boarders -- a shocking comedown for the once-elegant family. While Mrs. Wray wrings her hands, Frances converts the second floor to an apartment, installs a coin-operated gas meter and brings in the tenants, the decidedly middle-class Leonard and Lilian Barber. But even she is a bit undone as they move in all their tacky possessions and, soon after, entertain Lilian's loud, crass family in what used to be Mrs. Wray's bedroom.
On a whim, after the rambunctious guests depart, Frances invites Lilian to join her for a smoke -- a secret one, as Mother doesn't approve. In those moments, confidences are shared and something unexpected ensues -- a friendship. "They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening -- Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that. Did Mrs. Barber feel it?"
Why yes, she does. And she will soon be feeling a whole lot more than that, as the relationship between the two women blossoms into a passionate lesbian affair, evoked in romantic and sensual detail. As they become increasingly greedy for and obsessed with each other, the tension mounts to an unbearable pitch before exploding in a desperate, violent crime.
To say more here would be to spoil the effect, so I suggest you throw caution to the winds and pick up "The Paying Guests" for yourself. But I warn you, you won't be out of it until page 566.