In this novel set in post-World War I England, Frances Wray lives with her mother in their once-grand house. Though only in her late twenties, Frances is resigned to a life of spinsterhood, taking care of her mother and the house, having lost her two brothers to the War and her father to illness. Even though Frances does the housework herself, the Wrays still cannot make ends meet, and are forced to take in boarders, or "paying guests," a young couple of the clerk class called Leonard and Lillian Barber. Though shy with each other at first, Frances soon finds herself forming a friendship with Lillian, and is embroiled in the unhappy marriage of the Barbers, resulting in the upheaval of both the Barbers' and the Wrays' lives.
The Paying Guests is a masterfully written novel by the author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. It is a well researched piece of historical fiction with layers of social commentary on the post-war era, social class, and women's rights. However, what I found most remarkable about the book was its depth and intensity. There is a strong romantic element with gripping, emotional scenes. There is also a suspenseful crime and courtroom component to the plot that makes the book a page-turner. Fans of the Dickensian novel will find this book quite compelling.