“The Paying Guests” was a nail biter. I haven’t had that sense of creeping dread since, er, the last Sarah Waters book I read, her 2009 novel “The Little Stranger.” That was a ghost story of sorts, about a country doctor in England who became entangled with one of those wealthy, going-to-seed, eccentric families that English literature just can’t do without. It’s interesting that “The Little Stranger” took place in England in the aftermath of World War II, and “The Paying Guests” is suffused with the atmosphere of a country struggling back from incalculable losses, human and otherwise, caused by World War I.
“The Paying Guests” is a lovers’ triangle story. Novelists love these stories because they feature heightened emotion and impulsive behavior, as the participants struggle to escape the trap they’ve created for themselves by trying to love and possess someone who is loved and possessed by someone else. When I started sitting down and transcribing all the lovers’ triangle novels I could find, I ran out of paper and pixels. Here are just a few from the annals of classic literature:
“Gone with the Wind.” Rhett loves Scarlett, but Scarlett loves Ashley, even though everyone (including the reader) knows she’d be much better off with Rhett. Ashley loves the saintly Melanie. Does this make a lovers’ quadrangle? I’m already confused.
“The Great Gatsby.” Jay Gatsby loves Daisy. Daisy thinks she might love Gatsby but what she really loves is her cushy place in high society, provided by her thuggish husband Tom Buchanan.
Etc. I could go on, and on, and on, with novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and even Leo Tolstoy, but I’m going to talk about some slightly more contemporary novels.
“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton. OK, I said “slightly” more contemporary. This novel won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the first ever won by a woman, but the characters are as fresh as if it had all been acted out yesterday.
It’s set in the class-bound world of Manhattan high society in the 1870s. Newland Archer is a proper young man who is engaged to the sheltered but lovely May Welland. In like a hurricane comes Mary’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who has fled Europe after an exceedingly bad marriage to a Polish count. Ellen is gorgeous, sexy and tragic. Newland falls head over heels. This story threads back and forth between the three characters and plays out over several decades. The ending is a heartbreaker. If this novel sounds too historical for you, just skip the print part and watch the movie, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Newland and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen. It is a scorcher.
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles. This masterful 1969 novel is another multiple-love-triangle story. Sarah Woodruff is a “disgraced” Victorian woman living in England; she fell in love with a French naval officer before she learned that he was married to someone else (Triangle Number One). An English gentleman and amateur naturalist, Charles Smithson, become intrigued and obsessed with Sarah, despite being engaged to a proper young Englishwoman (Triangle Number Two). Fowles was a very brainy novelist, and he used this book to look at different ways of writing stories, including giving the book three different endings! This book is an English major’s dream, because it looks at literature and storytelling in so many different ways. If you want a straighter story-like version, there, once again, is the 1981 movie of the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. My heart is pounding already.
Then there’s “Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece about an impossibly rich Roman Catholic English family, the Marchmains. The main character, Charles Ryder, falls in love with both siblings in this family, the brother, Sebastian Flyte, and Sebastian’s sister, Cordelia. This makes for all kinds of interesting complications, to say the least.
This epic novel proceeds from post-World War I Cambridge, where Charles and Sebastian first meet, through World War II, when Charles encounters the Marchmain family mansion again, when it has been requisitioned by the military to garrison troops. This is not just a romance; Waugh had all kinds of things to say about matters of religion and class, morals and ethics. Fun fact: Waugh, who served in the English military during the war, somehow talked his superiors into letting him take time off from the war to write this book. Talk about persuasiveness! Not to imply that I watch a lot of British TV, but I recently rewatched the entire series based on “Brideshead Revisited,” which first aired on PBS’s masterpiece in the 1981. It’s still a masterwork
Finally, I admit I love older books, but here is a relatively new one about a love triangle: Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot.” This tells the sweeping story of three Brown University students, a girl and two boys, both of which happen to be in love with the girl. It follows them through a couple of decades, in which they 1. Have to grow up and 2. Figure out how they feel about one another, and how much they are willing to sacrifice for love. How does it end? I can’t tell you. I did come across this wonderful quote from Anthony Trollope that the girl in “The Marriage Plot,” Madeleine, uses in her senior thesis: “The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel.”