Book No 38 (2015) : The Paying Guests

paying guestsThis book reinforced the main reason why I fell in love with reading in the first place. I grew up, like so many youngsters of my age, on Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis. During school holidays, rainy days and weekends, I would lose myself in a book, much to the frustration of my much more active sister who was always urging me to ‘do’ something! Reading was the gateway to other places and it still is. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests‘ did what I love in a novel, which is to draw me into another world.

It is the 1920s and Frances Wray and her mother have been left in debt. Once a busy home, with two sons and servants, their Camberwell house is now echoing and lonely. Although only in her mid-20s, Frances has become a drudge, behind with the latest fashions, often with only her mother for company and lumbered with all the household chores. To make ends meet, the Wrays decide to take in lodgers, or ‘paying guests’. Lilian and Leonard Barber are a young married couple, whose presence brings the house to life. Frances and Lilian strike up a cautious friendship which develops into a passionate, illicit affair. The couple long to be together but are constrained by their situations. Then, one night, a terrible accident takes place which threatens to wreck their future. Can Lilian and Frances’ love survive this ultimate test?

Until I got a few chapters into the novel, I had forgotten that Waters writes about lesbian relationships and, in this instance, the setting is at at time when such romances were not publicly acceptable. The gender of the protagonists in ‘The Paying Guests‘ adds an extra twist to the novel; Frances Wray is complex and unconventional, with a past history of political activism. The setting is full of contemporaneous details such as fashion, decor, social expectations etc. London is unsettled in the wake of war, with veterans out of work and families grieving their lost men.

Part romance, part thriller, this book kept me engrossed throughout; the author achieved that very clever feat of keeping me rooting for the bad guy. I was even tempted to sneak it under the covers with a torch, just to find out what happened next!


Book No 20 (2014) : The Perfume Collector

perfume collector I loved this book.

Grace Munroe is trapped in a loveless marriage, unable to have children and convinced her husband is having an affair. Out of the blue, a letter arrives from a French lawyer, asking Grace to travel to Paris as she has been named as the sole benefactor in the will of the recently deceased Eva d’Orsey. Grace makes the trip alone. So begins a journey of discovery into her past, as Grace traces Eva’s story and unravels the mystery of why she has been entrusted with Eva’s estate.  Alternating between the late 1920’s/early 30’s and the mid-1950’s, Eva’s life and death begin to converge with Grace’s birth, and future.

The role of scent is fascinating within the book – the creation of perfume, the pursuit of the perfect accord, and the processes of the perfumer. Whilst there are visual and emotional descriptions within the text, the author’s talent for describing the smell of a scene adds a new dimension to appreciating its setting. She references famous French perfumes such as Guerlain’s ‘Mitsouko’ and explores the importance of aroma in recollections, sexual attraction and perception.

perfumesThe Perfume Collector’ is like a perfume itself. There are the top notes – the light humour and teasing of the lawyer Edouard Tissot, Mallory’s exuberance, Paris fashion. Then the base notes which emerge after a while – power, debt, abandonment, betrayal and secrets. Throughout the narrative the author lays down clues which tug at your memory, wafts of something which has passed before but which you can’t quite capture. Then once you have finished the book, a trace of it lingers. The slight whiff of a scene from the novel transports you back to its pages, in the same way as scent connects us to our memories.

As a lifelong lover of perfume, (I am always surreptitiously sniffing passers-by and openly ask friends what they are ‘wearing’), I was transported by this book. It’s one which I will readily recommend. Like my favoured ‘Aromatics’, it is both evocative and memorable.