The Paying Guests
By Sarah Waters
At several points while I was reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests I stopped to consider the phrase “not for me.” In the context of a review, those words usually translate to “I didn’t like it,” sometimes with the caveat “but I can understand why someone else would.” On the other hand, if you switch perspectives from the reader’s side to the writer’s side, it can instead mean “This was intended for someone else.” That may seem similar, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made, and it has to do with community, inclusion, intrusion, and the interactivity of art.
The Paying Guests is set in a genteel London suburb during the interwar period. Frances Wray and her mother, having lost Frances’ father and two brothers during the war, have fallen on hard times and are forced to take in lodgers in order to make ends meet. Their new tenants, Lilian and Leonard Barber are part of the newly rising middle class (as Frances calls them at one point, the “clerk class”), and their arrival brings a certain tension as the Wrays must alter their lives to accommodate the Barbers. Passions eventually flare, and everyone’s lives are thrown into upheaval.
Now, I realize that that description sounds terribly dull, but although The Paying Guests is certainly a slow burn, burn it does. As NPR’s Barrie Hardymon put it during an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, “it could be very fussy, but [Waters] doesn’t shy away from anything, so the sex is really sexy; the murder is super murder-y.” (Did I forget to mention the sex and the murder? Oh. Well there’s both.) It takes a while for things to get moving along, but that gives Waters plenty of time to establish her protagonist’s inner workings, as well as the atmosphere of the Wray’s house and neighborhood. It’s all just beautifully done. And, yeah, it’s really sexy, too. Not just sexy, but passionate, in the way that pulls you in and reminds you of that head-over-heels feeling of the young love in your own life.
So, I liked it, but at the same time, I have to admit that I felt a little… weird about it. That is, Waters is known for being a lesbian writer; as she put it, herself, in an interview with AfterEllen.com, “I’m writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It’s right there at the heart of the books.” Which is something that I applaud, and I’m so glad that these kinds of stories are getting written and published, and that so many previously marginalized voices are carving out their own spaces for expression. I think that’s legitimately great.
It’s the question of intended audience and safe spaces, though, that makes me a little uncomfortable, though. Now, I do think that there’s value to inclusion in both directions; that is, both in the majority culture including marginalized people and marginalized people reaching out to and including members of the majority. But I also recognize that it’s necessary and critical for marginalized people to have the ability and right to create their own spaces, and that part of that involves a certain amount of exclusion. This is a touchy thing for some people in the majority culture, but I firmly believe that a big part of empowerment involves spaces where oppressed people can act without fear or pressure.
How does this apply to a book like The Paying Guests? Well, the lesbian sex scenes in this book are by no means graphic, but they’re positively electric in terms of how sensual and passionate they are; it’s difficult not to get at least a little turned on by them. And having that kind of a response, I can’t help but wonder: is it OK for me, a straight man, to get turned on when a lesbian writer depicts two women having sex? On one level, I know that this is an intensely stupid question, but I keep coming back to that idea of safe spaces, and at times when I was reading this book, I felt like I was intruding, like I was in a private place where I really shouldn’t be.
Now, I know that this is entirely my issue. As far as I can tell from the interviews I’ve read, Waters is pleased at having all kinds of readers. And, who knows? Perhaps getting more straight people to read and enjoy books like this is a good step toward social justice. I don’t know. What I do know is that this was a really good book.
Started: 4/21/2015 | Finished: 5/8/2015