Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Publisher: Virago Press
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters’ sixth and most recent novel, is set in the early 1920s and tells the story of Frances Wray, who lives with her elderly mother in a large house in the London suburb of Champion Hill. In order to bring in some extra income after the death of her brothers (in the war) and her father (from a stroke), Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers. These “paying guests,” as they are referred to throughout the novel, turn out to be Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young couple from the so-called “clerk class.”
Now, this was my first Sarah Waters’ novel, and it’s actually her lowest-rated book on Goodreads. If you talked to a Sarah Waters fan, they would probably recommend that you start with Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith, however I picked up a copy of The Paying Guests while I was in England (you can find my full English book haul here) last summer primarily because I’m instantly intrigued by any book that takes place in the 1920s. I can’t speak to whether or not this is the best place to start with Waters’ bibliography, however I can tell you this: I thoroughly enjoyed The Paying Guests.
I barely knew I had skin before I met you.
The Paying Guests is divided into three parts and, rather fittingly, as a novel it can be placed into three different genres: historical fiction, romance, and crime novel. All three parts of the book have elements of these three different genres, however the first part is really where the love story comes in, as the entire first 200 or so pages of the novel focus around the building romantic tensions between Frances and Lilian. This was, by a long shot, my favorite bit of this book and definitely the most gripping of the three parts. In my opinion, this how all love stories should be written. In many romance novels, or even books with love stories as subplots, the romance between characters can be annoyingly instantaneous: the two characters meet and then, miraculously, two days later they’re planning their wedding and pledging their everlasting devotion to each other. If that sort of Romeo and Juliet-esque instalove is your cup of tea then you go right ahead; I personally prefer a more gradual sort of love story and Sarah Waters does this perfectly. I promise you, you won’t be able to put this book down as you watch Frances and Lilian’s relationship transition from strangers to cautious friends to romantic interests, all while under the watchful eyes of Lilian’s husband and Frances’ mother.
The second part of the book is a bit of an inbetween part, serving as the transition point between the love story of the first part and the crime aspect of the third part. We see a bit more development in Frances and Lilian’s relationship, but it appears as though not much is happening in the second part until the murder occurs right at the very end. Now, I want this review to be spoiler-free so I’m not going to give you any clue as to who is murdered, but just believe me when I say that this is a rather dramatic twist in the plot of the novel and seamlessly paves the way for the third part of the novel, the murder trial. I think this is what Sarah Waters does best in this novel: effortlessly weave seemingly different bits and pieces together. On a very small level, this manifests itself in the way she seamlessly brings Frances and Lilian, two quite different women, together. On a larger level, of course, this is shown in the way Waters combines the three genres of romance, historical fiction, and crime without the story ever seemingly clunky or disjointed.
Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response. You know that, don’t you?
The third part of this novel is the only area where this book fell a tiny bit flat for me, and it is the reason I gave this a four star, not a five star, rating on Goodreads. I was expecting the tensions associated with the murder trial in this part of the book to be just as riveting as the romantic tensions were in the first part, however I unfortunately found myself getting a bit bored at times. I wanted something a bit more thrilling, something to keep me on the edge of my seat up until the very last pages, particularly as this is such a long novel, and unfortunately I felt the murder trial itself dragged on a bit. However, this third part was intriguing in the way that it showed the inner workings of the London court system in the 1920s. This entire novel, in fact, is packed with fascinating historical tidbits, and you can tell Sarah Waters really did her research.
Overall, I highly enjoyed The Paying Guests and I will definitely be picking up some more of Waters’ novels in the future. The attention to detail in the historical setting was superb, the writing was gorgeous and flowed well without ever seeming laborious, the characters were well-developed, and the love story was gripping and full of delicious romantic tension. Was this book perfect? No, but then, really, is any book? If you are a fan of historical fiction, a fan of Sarah Waters, a fan of well-written romances, or just a fan of engaging stories, I strongly recommend this book to you. Also, if you are a fan of Sarah Waters, please let me know which book of hers is your favorite as I’m a bit stuck as to which one I should buy next. Happy reading! 🙂