Note: There are no spoilers in this review.
Waters once again explores gender and class in a historical context, this time in the early years of post-World War I London.
With the men in their family having died in the war, Frances Wray (at 26, considered a “spinster”) and her mother have been forced to take in boarders in their large house for extra income. A young insurance clerk, Len Barber, and his bohemian wife Lilian come to stay in the house. Frances quickly discerns that the Barbers’ marriage isn’t a happy one. She becomes friends with Lilian, eventually confiding to her that she is attracted to women rather than to men. Frances becomes more and more obsessed with Lilian, and in a short time, Lilian seems to reciprocate. But what will they do about Frances’s mother and Lilian’s husband?
Discussion: Waters is so good at capturing the nuances of gender roles and expectations, and of their application to relationships between two people of the same sex. She is also expert at conveying the bizarre and infuriating class conventions that were especially salient in earlier times. But in this book, I feel she goes too far, or rather, goes on for too long. In portraying the tedium of Frances’s life, for example, she takes us through the same mind-numbing routines day after day. Couldn’t she just show us one typical day? Similarly, she is so skilled at showing us the anxieties of the characters and their moral equivocating, but must we hear about it over and over? I don’t think any of the carefully established moods of the story would have been lost by some editing.
The second problem I had was that I just could not like any of the characters, with the possible exception of Lilian’s mother. Frances’ mother is well-drawn, but so petulant and controlling as to make occupying even the same fictional room with her a very unpleasant experience. Len Barber is repulsive in every aspect. Lilian and Frances are both weak and vacillating; perhaps a willingness to have a sapphic relationship is “brave” but in every other respect they seem to me to lack conviction.
In the second half of the novel the action takes a disturbing turn. The protagonists have a whole new reality with which to cope, and we readers must endure every twist and turn of their thinking. Yes, it’s masterfully done, but again, it’s done for too long. And I, for one, found the ending profoundly unsatisfying.
Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014