The Paying Guests is a deeply melodramatic novel from much-lauded author Sarah Waters. It’s a genre-buster as well, since part of it is LGTBQ romance, part historical fiction, and part mystery/thriller. I chose it to fulfill prompts on two of my 2017 reading challenges, Book Riot’s Read Harder and Mount TBR. It’s been on my digital shelves for a while!
Skimming a few reviews before choosing it for Read Harder, I noticed that there were plenty of 1-star reactions. That didn’t deter me, and I’m glad I read The Paying Guests. For a few reasons, I chose to listen to the audiobook and read the Kindle version. As it turned out, I mostly listened. Juliet Stevenson’s narration was a perfect match for the book. She captured the feel of the writing, the characters, and the time period.
Typically I don’t spend my reviews summarizing plot, since you can read that elsewhere. I will say that this time period, just after World War I, was a fascinating time in England. People were traumatized, whether they’d been at the war front or keeping the home fires burning. The main character, Frances Wray, is a single woman living with her mother. After the deaths of her father and brothers, Frances and her mother are forced to take in lodgers, euphemistically called “paying guests.” The Wrays are seeing middle class life slip through their fingers, while their paying guests are trying to move up in the world. The young lodger couple, Lillian and Leonard Barber, shake up the Wray’s life in more than one way.
There’s a lot of clashing in the plot. Frances and Lillian are quite different. Frances and her mother also don’t see eye-to-eye, and Mrs. Wray spends plenty of time judging her “guests.” It’s clear that Frances would prefer to have a life in her own, without the responsibility of keeping the house in working order. But she may never get that chance, and this drives her a bit mad. As much as all these emotions seemed overwrought, they also rang true to me. There’s a scene with Frances and her mother that could have been written by the fly on the wall listening to my mother and I a decade ago.
As the book shifted through its various genres, the story line takes a few twists. But honestly, I thought there’d be more surprises at the end. On one hand, Waters makes it a more realistic ending. On the other, I would have been okay with the last-minute shocker I kept imagining!
Waters’ writing style is highly detailed—every small event is described, along with the feelings and thoughts it evokes. I suppose this can get tiresome, but I like the way it brings me inside the book’s world. If I’m going to invest the time to read a book, I want to lose myself in its pages.
All in all, this was a four-star read for me.