London, 1922. Frances Wray and her mother are reduced to taking lodgers into their once gracious, now shabby home. The two Wray sons died in the War and Frances' father died not long after, leaving behind a pile of debts and dubious investments. Servants had to be let go and Frances has taken on all the housework in order to economize but even that is not enough, hence the "paying guests," a euphemism designed to take some of the shame out of the necessity of finding some income. Their new tenants, Leonard and Lilian Barber, are brash and loud and slightly off-color, and their arrival in Champion Hill will change the quiet and narrow life in the house forever.
As the Barbers settle into life in the Wrays' house, there are small irritations and adjustments. There is an enforced intimacy and an uncomfortable window into someone else's life, not just in large ways like overhearing arguments but also in small ways like hearing Leonard take his indigestion medicine and follow it with a belch. Although Frances and her mother are sliding into a kind of genteel poverty, they are still of a higher class than the Barbers, who are most assuredly of the clerk class, and there are definite instances of snobbery and condescension that Waters captures beautifully. Frances' life is drawn to a tee in all its constrained smallness. Her future, as a spinster and the only surviving child of her widowed mother, looks like one long slog of polishing the floor and deciding which bills are most urgent to pay first. It is in these small domestic details, captured with perfect pitch, that Waters shines. But the arrival of the Barbers, Frances' life twining with theirs, will put paid to this dreary, unexciting future.
Right from the start, there is a slight rising menace to the story, letting the reader know that this will change quite a bit from the domestic drama it starts as to something much bigger and more terrible. The story is told in third person limited narration with the focus on Frances. While this allows us to see into Frances' head, there is too much repetition of her internal musings and agonizing as she swerves one way, then another, and then back again. The characters of Frances, Lilian, and Leonard, are not all that appealing on whole and so it is hard to get invested in their fates. The story is split into thirds and it is only toward the end of the middle third that the pace, drama, and tension of the book picks up, only to judder back to an overly long and drawn-out ending. In fact, by the time it came, I wish I had felt half as nervous as Frances about the anticipated outcome. Instead, the book sputtered to an unresolved and overwrought stop. Waters has captured the difficult transition from traditional to modern and the quiet desperation of the time financially as she examines appearances and facades in this novel of truth and secrets, love and class. The writing is smooth and adept but somehow the story remains unfortunately dull. Fingersmith is a much better novel if you are coming to Waters for the first time.