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The Paying Guests (2014)

by Sarah Waters

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,0961944,129 (3.58)247
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.… (more)
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    BookshelfMonstrosity: Intimate friendships between women give rise to scandalous rumors and interpersonal drama in these character-driven historical novels. Although both London-set stories are atmospheric and richly detailed, The Paying Guests opens in the 1920s, Life Mask in the late eighteenth century.… (more)
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» See also 247 mentions

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Due to the deaths of her husband and two sons and the hard times that have resulted from the end of the first World War, Mrs. Wray and her daughter, Frances, are forced to take in lodgers to their estate on Champion Hill in the Camberwell district of London. These lodgers, or “Paying Guests,” are Lilian and Leonard Barber, a newly-married couple who are quite modern in their day to day affairs. As the Barbers begin to make themselves at home, Frances and Lilian develop a close friendship. Upon learning that Frances had once been intimate with a woman, the two take their relationship to a new level, only to be met with serious consequences that could change their fates forever.

Having previously read The Little Stranger, I was not surprised to see that this novel was a bit on the lengthy side as well as a complete slow burn of a story. I can see why slow books could be quite frustrating for some readers (especially because the plot of this book doesn’t make itself known until around the 260 page mark), but that is certainly not the case for me; as I get older, I’m finding that I really enjoy reading about the routine descriptions of everyday life, as well as the intricate details of a specific setting or atmosphere. In this case, the creepy, gothic tone of the novel captivated me from the very first page. There is something so beautiful and eloquent in Waters’ craft that it seems like there is no way that it could’ve been published in this day and age; often times I felt that this particular work was reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier, and let me tell you, I LIVE FOR THOSE VIBES.

My only issue with this book is that at its core, the plot is a very cliche, overused trope: Person A is in a relationship with Person B, but Person C is extremely attracted to Person A. Person A and Person C develop a relationship, leaving Person B to lose their mind, ultimately resulting in a situation where catastrophe ensues. When push comes to shove, it’s really easy to figure out what happens, but I was hoping that Waters would blow me away with some intricate plot twist that just didn’t happen. I’ve heard that this is her weakest book, and if that’s the case, I cannot wait to read her backlist. ( )
  cbwalsh | Sep 13, 2023 |
Set in London just after World War 1, The Paying Guests is about Frances, a dowdy spinster who has fallen on hard times. She and her mother are reduced to taking in lodgers: the fun-loving Lillian and Leonard.

(At the start of this book I suspected we were in for something similar to Cloudstreet and I still sort of wish that had been the case).

Frances is the despair of her straight-laced mother, having been caught out in a lesbian affair years ago. As Frances starts to take a shine to Lillian, she senses her mother's veiled disapproval. Lillian and Frances become closer as they become more familiar until finally, upon returning home from a party, they become lovers. Their relationship must be kept hidden from view and there is much to-do with opportunistic intimacies and rushed liaisons. Eventually they are discovered, with tragic results. Desperate to keep their secret, they cover up their part in the tragedy, which only makes things worse.

This is pretty much melodrama, somewhat breathlessly told and not all that convincing. Lillian's overnight conversion from platonic friend to enthusiastic lesbian lover is a bit too sudden to be credible. I found it odd that a lesbian writer would also gloss over the unlikelihood of a heterosexual woman having a highly-aroused response to her first, tentative, lesbian encounter. It just seems totally unlikely to me.

In the end this is a pretty straightforward novel of a crime of passion and a courtroom drama, given a twist by the lesbian affair it its centre. The characters are histrionic and irritating a lot of the time. At times Waters looked like she would develop a more disturbing explanation for her characters' motivations, but she chooses not to do so. Compared to the dark twists of plot that enriched her earlier work such as Fingersmith and Affinity, Sarah Waters just seems to be phoning it in these days. ( )
  gjky | Apr 9, 2023 |

Camberwell, 1922. Frances Wray and her mother lead a lonely life in a house which has become too big for them, too costly to maintain. The death of Frances's two brothers and her father during the Great War still casts a shadow over the household. To make ends meet, the Wrays have to take in lodgers or "paying guests". Horror of horrors! What will the neighbours say? The arrival of Leonard and Lilian Barber will indeed have far-reaching consequences, very different from those feared by the Wrays...

I have read all Waters's works and none has disappointed me so far. This has come very close. I squarely blame the blurbs on the cover for this. Let's start with the claim that the book is "unputdownable" and "page-turning". Well, the first 200 pages or so were quite soporific. Well-written by all means and definitely finely crafted. But not "unputdownable" in my understanding of the word. In fact, I decided to take a break from the novel, and read two or three others before returning to it.

Things pick up when the relationships (and tensions) between the Wrays and the Barbers develop. But we're still far from the wild ride of "Fingersmith" or "Affinity". In its second and third parts, the novel moves into the crime territory and suddenly Waters builds up the tension. Yes, the novel does become page-turning, but only out of the build-up of curiousity as to how the narrative will wrap up - John Grisham style. Ironically, Lauren Owen's historical vampire novel [b:The Quick|18050175|The Quick|Lauren Owen|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1391414209s/18050175.jpg|25332934] (admittedly a very different sort of book) was slated by many critics for exactly these same type of gear/genre changes.

Waters has been praised for her powers of observation and for her use of the "domestic novel" to probe at the social divisions inherent in the world she portrays. One critic compared her to Zola and Flaubert. Yes, the novel is successful from this point of view. But let's not forget that friction between different social classes and communities has been a recurring subject in all her novels. And one might argue that it's more challenging to address such a social theme within the genre strictures of a ghost story (as she did in The Little Stranger) than in a ... social novel about class friction in 1920s London.

A related problem is the fact that, perhaps because of its very genre, the novel contains long sections of dialogue. Waters does a good job at crafting a pastiche of the style of the era - but this makes long passages of the book read as if it were a Downton Abbey script. I preferred the third-person passages, where a striking metaphor or turn of phrase would remind me of why I love reading this author.

Another critic praised Waters for "not being afraid of being explicit". There are indeed some sexually charged scenes, but her most transgressive novel to date is her very first one - Tipping the Velvet. Nothing new here.

So why do I give this novel a decent three stars? Because notwithstanding my doubts about the book, it contains many hallmarks of Waters's style. Because, despite the longueurs and fact that it could have done with some editing, some passages are truly gripping. Because if I hadn't been led to expect a "masterpiece", a "perfect novel" and "Sarah Waters's best novel to date" I might have simply enjoyed it for what it is. ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Feb 21, 2023 |
Piled through this one! Why, you may ask? Well it seems to me that Ms Waters is back on form. The last book of hers I read was The Little Stranger and I was not overly impressed. I seem to remember that the only thing I liked about it was the main character, Dr Faraday (had to look that up) and that was mainly because I imagined him as looking a hell of a lot like David Tennant. In contrast, whilst I couldn't fully get an image of any of the cast of The Paying Guests perfectly in my head, I still remember each character, however inconsequential. Mrs Playfair, the kindly but nosy neighbour, Lillian's sisters Vera & Min (and the other two who are only just mentioned), her mother, the young man Ewart that Frances meets at the party Lillian takes her to, Spencer & Billie, the Dawsons, the Lambs and the man in the park who really begins Frances & Lillian's journey.

I probably won't read The Paying Guests again (not for a good few years anyway) because I was pretty disappointed by the end. It has persuaded me to dig out my copy of Fingersmith again however as I've been reminded of how much I enjoy Ms Waters writing. ( )
  theBookDevourer211 | Jan 27, 2023 |
Another fantastic, twisted story from Sarah Waters. Wow. There's no predicting where the story will go. I found it to drag a bit in one section but I was too invested to even consider stopping. And I felt on the edge of my seat until the very last word.

There are few authors who can weave a tale like Waters and I'll certainly pick up her next book.

**7/2015 Re-reading and enjoying it just as much as the first time. Maybe a little more.** ( )
  amcheri | Jan 5, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 194 (next | show all)
"Some novels are so good, so gripping or shattering that they leave you uncertain whether you should have ever started them. You open “The Paying Guests” and immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Sarah Waters’s silken prose. Nothing jars. You relax. You turn more pages. You start turning them faster. Before long, you resemble Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest: You cannot choose but read. The book has you in thrall. You will follow Waters and her story anywhere. Yet when that story ends, you find yourself emotionally sucked dry, as much stunned as exhilarated by the power of art."
added by lorax | editWashington Post, Michael Dirda (Sep 10, 2014)
The superbly talented Sarah Waters — three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — leads her readers into hidden worlds, worlds few of us knew existed. And so it is with The Paying Guests. ..Amid this heart-crushing drama, uncaring London grinds on, a cacophony of “hooves, voices, hurrying steps, the clash and grinding of iron wheels” that threatens to destroy the hopes of summer: an utterly engrossing tale.
Novel tackles big themes but lacks bite...Yet the love story’s progression – to say more would give too much away – is not entirely convincing by the end..Characterisation has a hint of familiarity, as if characters have been derived from Waters’ bank of past creations, and they lose some of their gleam for it, though the story stays emotionally-charged...
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters' superb, bewitching new novel, is set in 1922 London...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.
This fascinating domestic scenario might have made for an absorbing short novel;... Its pastiche propriety and faux-Edwardian prose (people are forever "colouring" and "crimsoning" and "putting themselves tidy") become irritants; and the novel's descent into melodrama as a murder is committed – and the inspector called – turns this engaging literary endeavour into a tiresome soap opera....Waters's unusual gift for drama and for social satire is squandered on the production of middlebrow entertainment:.. it would be good to see Waters produce something corrective and sharp, in which her authoritative and incisive dramatic style was permitted to be sufficient satisfaction on its own.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Waters, Sarahprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, JulietNarratormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bützow, HeleneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carra, LeopoldoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Defossé, AlainTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Groen, NicoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jong, Sjaak deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leibmann, UteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lyng, HildeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mörk, YlvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Versluys, MarijkeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zulaika, JaimeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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To Judith Murray,
with thanks and with love
First words
The Barbers had said they would arrive by three.
Many books helped to inform and inspire this one. (Author's Note)
He took the life of the room with him.
When she and Lilian escaped from the house at last, Frances felt as she imagined a fly might feel when, by some miracle, it had managed to prise its limbs free from a strip of sticky paper.
The pavement threw up heat like a griddle; they kept to the shade as much as they could as they made their way down the hill, but it was warm even on the platform of the station, in the bluish dusk of the railway cut.
The crowd was a Saturday-night one. People were heading to theatres, picture-houses, dancing-halls. The men had an oiled-and-varnished look.
The air was soupy with smells: meat, fish, ripe fruit, perspiring bodies.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

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From the bestselling author of "The Little Stranger "and "Fingersmith," an enthralling novel about a widow and her daughter who take a young couple into their home in 1920s London. It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa--a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants--life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the "clerk class," the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances's life--or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, Sarah Waters has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction, and here she has delivered again. A love story, a tension-filled crime story, and a beautifully atmospheric portrait of a fascinating time and place, "The Paying Guests" is Sarah Waters's finest achievement yet.
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