Published: September 16, 2014
Awards: Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2015), Specsavers National Book Award Nominee for UK Author of the Year (2014), Walter Scott Prize Nominee (2015), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2014), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2014) Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2015)
Wow! What an incredible book. Sarah Waters has created a marvelous piece of historical fiction set in England 1922 in a genteel Camberwell neighborhood. The war has ended. Many have died, including the protagonist’s two brothers and her father. Those that returned from the war are disillusioned. Frances Wray and her mother are left bankrupt by their father who squandered away their money. They have dismissed the servants and are now taking in boarders. Frances does all the cleaning and cooking herself, while her mother is out, so that she will not have to watch her daughter stooping to that occupation.
The boarders who become “the paying guests” are a young couple of the clerk class, Mr. and Mrs. Barber (Leonard and Lilian.) Mr. Barber is talkative and makes Frances uncomfortable with his innuendos. Mrs. Barber hides herself away at first, but soon she and Frances develop a close friendship. As they grow closer, Frances divulges to Lilian that she had been in love with a woman, Christina, but was made to put an end to the relationship by her parents. In a time when London has been devastated by war, the family brought down by multiple deaths and financial ruin, certain societal norms are not to be challenged.
The knowledge that Frances is a lesbian or had a lesbian lover seemingly creates a tension or barrier to their friendship. Lilian avoids Frances until the night of Lilian’s family party which she had invited Frances to many weeks prior in Mr. Barber’s stead as he had a supper to attend that evening.
At the party, Mrs. Barber dances freely with several gentleman and even with Frances. After returning home, they find Leonard has been assaulted and is in the kitchen with a bloodied nose and face. Later that evening, Frances and Lilian return to the kitchen and embark on their steamy sultry love affair making love in the pantry. The love affair continues and their feelings continue to grow until Leonard is accidentally murdered which is ruled a homicide. This leads to a coverup, incredible tension, outing of other affairs, and the need for deep secrecy of their own love affair.
This book is amazing on so many levels. The historical piece seems so spot on and well done. There was never a point where anything seemed even questionably out of the time period. I felt as if I were dwelling in London in the 1920s alongside these characters. The character building and tension that was created were so well done. I must admit I was getting antsy during the investigation and the trial that seemed to go on for so long, but that was the point. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. It keeps me questioning Lillian’s motives while still hoping the romance will last. This novel would make an excellent independent film with sexy enthralling characters. It would be amazing! It is an incredibly written book that I highly recommend to everyone. The one caveat is that this book can seem to be going very slowly at some points, which didn’t bother me, but might not appeal to some readers.
- What role does domestic work play in this novel?
- Discuss the role of class on the characters and their situations.
- How has war impacted these characters?
- Did you begin to doubt or question Lilian’s motives after Leonard dies?
- How do you imagine Lilian and Frances’ relationship will progress now that the trial is over?
- What impact did the murder and trial have on their relationship?
- Did you suspect Len of cheating? Why don’t you think Lilian shared this information with Frances?
- Frances compares the notes of Lilian to the letters from Christina. Discuss the similarities and differences. Why is this important?
- Frances’ mother begins to treat Frances differently after Leonard dies. Why do you think this is? What are her suspicions?
- Discuss the perception of lesbianism during this era. Why was this out of the question for Frances’ parents to accept that she wanted to be with a female?
- Frances accuses Lilian of wanting to be admired which Lilian denies. What do you think?
- Before Lilian arrives on the bridge after the trial has ended, Frances contemplates jumping off. Do you think she was seriously considering suicide? Why or why not?
- What is the significance in the end of Frances and Lilian being united by the words “I can’t?”
- There were several instances where Lilian wishes Leonard would die. Do you think that his death was fully an accident?