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A Historic Backdrop Frames Forbidden Love In 'The Paying Guests'

Frances has it bad, and that's not good. Normally she's an intelligent, reliable, resourceful young woman, a companion to her widowed mother, keeper of the large house on Champion Hill in which the two of them rattle about, now that the men of the family have died. But then Frances falls in love, and the carefully wrought edifice of her life collapses in a heap of passion and catastrophe.

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters' superb, bewitching new novel, is set in 1922 London. World War I has recently ended, but not before consuming hundreds of thousands of British lives and leaving the nation economically devastated. Families like Frances' — once wealthy — now find the cupboard bare.

To cope, Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers, the "paying guests" of the title: a nice young couple a notch or two below them on the social scale. Their names are Len and Lily Barber. He's a bit of a lout, and she's something of a flirt, but in Frances' orderly, boring world, they function the way sunrise does in a gloomy room: Suddenly you're compelled to open wide the window — or in Frances' case, her heart. She and Lily begin a red-hot affair.

Waters is a master of the slow build, of the gradual assemblage of tiny random moments that result in a life-altering love. She captures the deep emotion that can underlie the crude mechanics of sex, the poetry that keeps it from being just a midnight merging of limbs and orifices. Forget about Fifty Shades of Grey; this novel is one of the most sensual you will ever read, and all without sacrificing either good taste or a "G" rating.

Something terrible happens within these pages, of course, and Frances faces a moral dilemma of monstrous proportion. I'm reluctant to say even one more word about the plot, however, because Waters is a consummate storyteller, and for the reader, each twist elicits a small, deeply pleasurable shock. Frances isn't the only one who will do a lot of gasping in the course of The Paying Guests.

This is Waters' sixth novel. I've loved them all, except for The Night Watch (2006), set in London during World War II, which felt contrived. The others are absolutely spellbinding. The Little Stranger (2009), the one prior to The Paying Guests, is perhaps my favorite, but in both, the past is brought before our eyes with exquisite clarity. The very air quivers with lust and expectancy. You'll swear you can hear the clink of the cups and saucers, as well as the mad pounding of Frances' heart when her beloved is near. Here is Waters' description of the latter moment: "It was as if all her senses had been wiped clean of a layer of dust. Every colour seemed sharper. Straight edges were like blades."

My only quibble with The Paying Guests is its length; the last hundred pages or so chronicle a court trial and feel padded, the first time I've ever had that reaction to a Sarah Waters novel. Otherwise, this is a magnificent creation, a book that doubles as a time machine, flinging us back not only to postwar London, but also to our own lost love affairs, the kind that left us breathless — and far too besotted to notice that we had somehow misplaced our moral compass.

Julia Keller's latest novel is Summer of the Dead.

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Julia Keller