The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters: Book Review

A historical read with a thrilling twist.

paying guests sarah waters book reviewRiverhead Books / Charlie Hopkinson
The Paying Guests Book Cover The Paying Guests
Sarah Waters
Historical Fiction
Riverhead Books
September 16th 2014

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.

The Paying Guests by prolific novelist Sarah Waters transports readers to 1920’s London as secrets unravel and tensions build.

Frances Wray, the main character in the novel, is a woman in her mid-twenties, with no marriage prospects and no desire to follow the traditional path that was laid out for women back then. Frances is truly a woman ahead of her time, and someone I continued to like as the novel progresses, though she does exhibit poor judgment every now and again. With her brothers lost to the war and financial ruin left in the wake of her father’s death, Frances and her mother are forced to accept lodgers into their gradually decaying home in order to bring some much-needed money into the household.

Their lodgers, or ‘paying guests’ if you will, happen to be Lenoard and Lillian Baker, a young married couple that breathes life into the formally stuffy and melancholy home. Leonard is looking to move up the corporate ladder. Lillian borders on eccentric, decorating both her living space, as well as herself, in furs, beading, and loud patterns. Both represent the working-class at the time, while the house and Frances’ mother cling to the privileged past. Frances occupies the space in between. A former activist but currently residing as a self-proclaimed ‘spinster’, Frances takes up a unique position in this society.

The novel seems to chronicle the new way of life in post-War London and Frances’ budding relationship with Lillian at the beginning. We see life through the eyes of a ‘spinster’ with Frances’s perspective, as she is forced to take on household chores and lead a very quiet, solemn life with her mother by her side. She observes Lillian closely and cherishes the friendship that she gradually develops with this woman so very different from herself. This novel explores all types of relationships, placing a magnifying glass on family dynamics, friendships, and romantic relationships.

Then, a shocking murder enters the mix and the whole novel turns into a courtroom drama. The murder that takes place does successfully revamp the plot, but I would not necessarily label it as a plot twist. Fear becomes the primary tone of this novel towards the end, with paranoia and guilt having a looming presence as well.

Having read Waters’ novel Affinity a few months back, which I consider one of my favorite books I’ve read this year, I had rather high expectations going into this book. There is no denying that Waters is extremely talented at her craft – the same excellent writing, masterful character development and psychological intrigue that I was so enthralled by in Affinity was reflected in The Paying Guests. However, something seemed to be missing from this novel. As much as I enjoy absorbing a plethora of details while reading, Waters seems to stretch out aspects of this novel until they are rather bland and just plain repetitive. Though I understand that this act of prolonging the main action of the novel could be seen as a way to build suspense, it instead built my boredom.

This is a quality novel. I felt that each character had their own complex personality and that the setting and society, under the context of post-War London, were captured well. I also enjoyed the Gothic aspects and psychological thrills that were sprinkled throughout. However, the pacing was too slow and the ending of the novel was unsatisfying. That being said, I do plan on reading more of Waters in the future since I do believe she is a great writer.

This post contains affiliate links and if you make a purchase after clicking on our links Paperback Paris will receive a small commission.

Alicia LeBoeuf
the authorAlicia LeBoeuf
Contributing Writer
I'm a college student pursuing an English major and Communication minor. I love everything book-related and I'm a passionate writer.