Double Book Review :: Secret Romance Under Pressure

The Paying Guests
Sarah Waters (2015)

Bel Canto
Ann Patchett (2005)

Quite by chance, I read these two books back-to-back and in reflection, I was struck by their similar themes and plot points. Another thing they have in common? I highly recommend them both as thought-provoking, strikingly well-written narratives, perfect for discussion.

Bel Canto, originally published in 2005, had a resurgence last year with the world premier stage adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel by Lyric Opera of Chicago. Patchett based her story on a 1996 terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. She reimagined events by including an international opera star among the hostages. As the crisis stretches over months, a strange symbiosis between captors and captives develops, including two secret love affairs, one involving the soprano and a Japanese businessman, and the other between a star-crossed Japanese translator and one of only two female guerrilla soldiers.

In The Paying Guests, published in 2015, author Sarah Waters sets her characters in a London neighborhood in 1922. The Wrays, a middle-aged widow and her spinster daughter Frances, live together in the family home. The upper-class Wray family is greatly diminished; both brothers were killed in the Great War and their grief-stricken father followed them in death, leaving Frances to grapple with a mountain of debt and her mother’s care. Under such financial strain, their servants have been let go, and Frances sneaks in the housekeeping while her mother is out, so as not to witness the shame. Mother and daughter have consolidated to the first floor, making ends meet by renting second floor rooms to Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young married couple, genteelly referred to as “paying guests.” Despite their class differences, Frances and Lillian become friends and then lovers, and eventually the story takes a dark turn as secrets lead to tragedy.

The central protagonists in each book are women involved in a clandestine romance that utterly transforms their lives. While cognizant of external forces working against them, each set of lovers exists in a romantic bubble in which they dream of a new life together, all the while, they (and the reader) know that their blissful liaison cannot be sustained, and in all likelihood, hope against hope, will come to an unhappy end.

Both works are teeming with rich prose, making each a literary treat. In Bel Canto and The Paying Guests, each author concludes with a coda pointing toward a possible alternate ending, a resolution that in one book misses the mark and in the other is satisfactorily open-ended. (I’ll let you read to discover and decide for yourself.)

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