The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Product Details

It’s 1922, and Frances Wray and her mother are struggling financially, living in genteel poverty. Frances’s two brothers died in the War, with her father following shortly afterwards. Upon his death they discovered that he’d lost most of their money in bad investments. Their staff have gone, and Frances has to do everything to keep their large house clean, as well as cook, and deal with the household budget. They’ve cut every corner they can, but the time has time to do the unthinkable – take in lodgers, or “paying guests”, as they’re known in desirable Champion Hill.

Enter Mr and Mrs Barber; Leonard and Lilian. They’re part of the new, upwardly mobile “clerk class” (a phrase that was new to me.) Leonard has a good job in assurance with prospects; Lilian doesn’t work now she’s married, as was usual then. At first Frances intends to avoid their lodgers whenever possible, but she is lonely, and quickly becomes fascinated by the Barbers, with a friendship with Lilian developing. Of course, it being a Sarah Waters book, it won’t surprise anyone when I say their friendship develops into more than that. But a violent incident will put all relationships under strain, familial and romantic, as does the ensuing court case. And what are Lilian’s true feelings?

What can I say? I loved this book. I loved Frances, who I thought was coping admirably in getting on with a life she’d never intended nor wanted. She’s a “good egg”, as they used to say. No wonder when she gets a shot at happiness she grabs it with both hands. But it seems as though Frances is destined never to be happy, as the shocking and violent incident threatens to rip all joy from her life, not for the first time…

I actually felt bereft when I’d finished the book. I’d have happily read another 200 pages on the housekeeping habits of the 1920s, and I don’t think there’s another author I could say that about! I know many readers prefer Waters’ earlier, Victorian-set novels, but I feel more comfortable in the 20th century, and I love the old-fashioned phrases. Many of them remind me of the Chalet School books I loved as a child. I have to declare The Night Watch as my favourite Sarah Waters, though. Despite having this book since the day it came out, I delayed reading it until the Christmas holidays – simply because I wanted to savour it, and I knew it’d be a long wait for the next Sarah Waters book (this one was released four years on from The Little Stranger, her last novel – which I did enjoy, but Waters has set such high standards for her work that I ultimately felt it didn’t work as well as it might.)

I know reviews of this have been mixed, both in the UK broadsheets and on the blogosphere, but an average work by Sarah Waters exceeds the best work of most authors writing today. This is a short review, and I’ve puzzled over why that’s the case for some time, but I think it’s because I’ve nothing bad to say about it. Perhaps the pacing of it was slightly uneven, but that’s a tiny quibble, and I’m being very nitpicky even mentioning it. The review’s short because, to re-iterate, I loved this book. It’s as simple as that.

17 thoughts on “The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

  1. What a lovely review. It’s great (whatever the individual takes by different reviewers) when one book can garner such a wealth of carefully described, well argued reiviews, both from those who 5 starred, and those with reservations. Books which engender much thought from their readers are always to be recommended, for the thought they provoke from their readers.


    • Thank you! And absolutely – a book that sticks in one’s mind like this one is a rare thing, especially as so much of the crime fiction I read is fairly forgettable! I think this would be a perfect book club read, as it does provoke a great deal of thought. I imagine many would consider the book somewhat slow, but when it’s Sarah Waters taking you there, I don’t mind how long it takes.


  2. I’ve heard very good things about this one, and I do love the 1920’s historical setting. This has just gone from my wishlist to my TBR list.


    • She is a great writer; I don’t know if you’ve read any of her other books. I’d be very interested to know how well-known she is in the States. I read an interview from November this morning where she said the 1950s was the decade she had just taken a particular interest in, so perhaps that’ll be the timeframe for her next novel? I like the sound of that.


      • Not, I think, as well-known as she is in the UK. I confess I’ve not read more than small bits of her other work, but what I’ve read I like. And I agree: her interest in the 1950s is intriguing!


      • Great decade – and I loved The Night Watch, which was 40s-set. I think it’s my favourite of her books. She’s great at all the details of each time – language, clothes, furniture, social mores. Only downer is waiting 4-odd years for her next book! Still, faster than Donna Tartt. And Jonathan Franzen!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well your review was well worth the wait! I think you’ve done exceptionally well to avoid the spoilers but still get the essence of this book across. As you know I adored this one and I ‘be bought a copy of Thr Night Watch which I missed.


    • Thanks Cleo! I’ve been looking for my copy of Affinity, which is the only one I’ve yet to read, but it must be in with my older books which are still boxed 😦 I don’t think I’ll be very popular if I start dragging them out – plus I’ll probably find a few more I’ll want to keep out. Need to wait til Mr Crimeworm is away for the day….


  4. Terrific review! And I’m so glad to hear how highly you thought of this book. I finally got a copy for myself, and plan to read it in the next few weeks. I’ve read a few of Sarah Waters’s books — loved Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, didn’t actually love The Little Stranger all that much… and I’m sad to say that Night Watch has been on my shelf for years, but I still haven’t read it! Based on your comments, I think I should remedy that situation ASAP.


    • Night Watch is my favourite, but I’m a sucker for anything set in recent history – but I know some prefer her Victorian-set novels. I love the way they spoke then…I’ll look out for your review of this one – and The Night Watch if you get to it! I couldn’t resist seeing what all the hype was, and as a result I’m halfway through The Miniaturist – I don’t know if that’s hit the US yet? It’s huge here right now.


  5. Great review! You’ve got me interested. I’ve heard nothing but great things by Sarah Waters so off to put this in my basket if it’s available. I have The Fingersmiths in my stacks. Might start with that one.


    • Thanks Keishon – Fingersmith is very popular, but I prefer the 20th century set novels. The Night Watch is, I think, particularly good. But really, they’re all great reads!


    • So irritating, I know I have it somewhere! I’ve got three large boxes which I haven’t unpacked, and if I start pulling one book out (Affinity, for example!) chances are I’ll find another dozen I want to read. But I can’t remember what’s in the boxes, which makes them all the more interesting! I have found Tipping The Velvet, but Fingersmith is MIA too. I think I’d really enjoy Affinity – and I need some Sarah Waters to read while I wait for her next book – which’ll probably appear c. 2019!


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