Sarah Waters’ New Novel May Not Inspire a Thousand Worldwide Celebrations, but It Should

[18 August 2014]

By Dan Barrett

I’ll start by saying a bit more about the last novel I reviewed here, Fourth of July Creek. (You’ll see why in a minute.) That novel was grating and over-hyped, and some distasteful aspects of the writing are still stuck in my craw. I think the book has garnered so much publicity in part because its author is an earnest white man. There. I’ve said it. If a woman had written it, I feel certain it would not have generated such absurdly large waves.

Also, it has one of those splashy, “give-me-attention” titles that men are so good at inventing. (Think of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s Plot to Kill America, Ethan Canin’s America America, Steven Zaillian’s American Gangster, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story.) If, instead of Fourth of July Creek, the title of Henderson’s work had been, say, Story of an Irresponsible Social Worker, well, the sales might have suffered.

I recently stumbled upon Smith Henderson’s Twitter account, where I encountered this bit of twaddle about Fourth of July Creek: “Your book has guts, heart and fists to pummel. You didn’t write a book; you birthed a heavy-weight champion.” And what kind of reader was responsible for posting that mawkish silliness? You guessed it. A man. Sometimes, when a man writes a mediocre book, it gets crazily mislabeled as “a heavy-weight champion.”

Sarah Waters, by contrast, has the (fiscally-speaking) “bad” luck of being a woman, and a lesbian, to boot. And she has given her work the unassuming title, The Paying Guests. If she had called it American Guests, she might have won herself an internationally ecstatic readership. Or perhaps, Fourth of July Manor? It wouldn’t matter that the novel is set in England—and has nothing to do with America. Slap a red/white/blue allusion onto the front of your book, and you’re certainly not going to do yourself any damage.

Years ago, when Waters made her literary debut, a heterosexual critic made this comment, whose condescension was probably unintentional: “If lesbian fiction is to reach a wider readership — as much…of it deserves to do — Waters is just the person to carry the banner.” (The critic: Miranda Seymour).I love the phrase “lesbian fiction”; it’s like “poetess” and “woman writer”. As if the experience of a lesbian character were so different from the stuff of “mainstream literature” that the story of that character’s life required an entirely different genre designation!

Perhaps along those lines we should start to refer to Henderson as a “man-writer”—a practitioner of “white-male-fiction”. (At a party, you could ask a friend if she has read a certain collection of James Salter stories, and your friend could sigh in a patronizing way and say, “Oh, that’s part of that ‘white-male-fiction’ trend, right? Much of that stuff deserves a wider readership.”)

Anyway, as you may have inferred, I think Waters’s new novel is outstanding. It’s the work of an artist at the height of her powers. Henderson could learn a thing or two from The Paying Guests.

It’s the story of a young woman, Frances, whose aristocratic status is in jeopardy after World War I. Her brothers have died in the war. Her father has also died, leaving behind enormous debts. Frances lives with her fussy, Victorian and yet (impressively) not-just-two-dimensional mother, and the two decide to take in lodgers—“paying guests”—so they can meet expenses.

The guests in question are a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Barber. Mrs. Barber, also known as Lilian, takes a shine to Frances (who likes girls). Romantic complications ensue. And then the story takes one shocking turn after another, and The Paying Guests becomes a kind of crime novel.

Chekhov famously said that a story needs only two elements: a “he” and a “she”. This is especially true of classic noir tales: Think of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Body Heat. The woman comes along and lures the dopey man into her sex-den where sparks fly. Love blossoms. And suddenly, the woman has some strange ideas. Why not commit a murder or two? The man, drugged by sex, agrees to fire the gun, or tie the noose, and so on. In the final act, the man discovers that the woman has an agenda of her own—and the woman leaves the man out to dry.

At times, The Paying Guests seems to follow this format (just with a “she” and a “she”), but Waters is too smart and subtle to conform entirely to the narrative archetype. Frances and Lilian are mysterious to each other, and often to the reader—just as the people in our own lives are mysterious. There’s real pleasure in speculating about the characters’ motives; Waters can quietly tilt the viewpoint just a bit, and suddenly a gesture that seemed utterly innocuous takes on new and menacing meanings.

How true this phenomenon is to life, and how rarely you encounter it on the page. We are all fumbling in the dark, doing our best to “read” one another—and our interpretations of friends’ behaviors are rarely 100 percent correct.

Waters does an astoundingly graceful job of spelling out how a relationship unfolds—at which moments the nervous lovers drift apart, and how small accidents can bring them back together, how fate can become indistinguishable from chance, how even two long-time associates can still look at each other as strangers. Neither Frances nor Lilian is simply good, and neither is simply bad. (This kind of complexity is something Smith Henderson strives for, but he doesn’t have the gift for organic storytelling that Waters possesses in spades. Henderson often seems to be shoehorning his characters into preconceived plot developments—developments he cribbed from a few high-profile HBO dramas.)

It’s also a testament to Waters’s gifts that the story ends in both a satisfying and plausibly thorny way. Some questions remain unanswered. The two main characters have gone on a complete journey, and you’re left eager to know where they’ll go next. They’re thoroughly changed. You want to write the sequel in your mind. How difficult, and how admirable, to pull off an ending that both sates you and leaves you chomping for more.

There are no distracting attempts at flowery language here. Sentences push the story forward, and forward, and forward. That’s not to say that characterization suffers at the hands of the plot. Everything seems beautifully integrated, so you feel as if an actual life were unfolding before you—a life that happens to be far more thrilling than most.

Lastly, note that Waters names her sources in her acknowledgments. Apparently, there are quite a few books about real-world, early 20th century, sensational, British crimes. Waters’ work so thoroughly enthralled me that I jotted down the titles of her references, having decided to flirt with the possibility of reading the stuff that she had read. Next on my list: Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.

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