The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


paying guests

I consider Sarah Waters to be one of my favorite authors so of course I started reading The Paying Guests back when it was released last fall with much excitement. However, I didn’t finish it before I went to London and had to return it to the library before I left. While walking around Windsor after visiting the castle I saw a copy for sale in a bookshop and bought it with the idea of reading it on the plane home. Yet I didn’t finish it then either. Finally a few weeks ago I started it again and this time I was riveted. I couldn’t stop reading and finished the novel with that wonderful sense of satisfaction you feel after living in a truly wonderful story.

The book is set in London in 1922 when the aftermath of the war is still radiating through society. Frances Wray and her mother are left alone in a big, demanding house with little money and no servants. To make ends meet they take in ‘paying guests’, Len and Lily Barber, a young couple who come from a different world, a different class, a different social status.  Inevitable awkwardness and discomfort accompany their arrival to the Wray’s home, especially as Len is a bit slick and there is an odd undercurrent of bitterness in his relationship with Lily. As the weeks go by they all try to adjust to the strained situation and Waters brilliantly creates that feeling of unease for the reader that sits at the heart of all of her novels.

Frances and Lily are eventually drawn together – out of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction – and their relationship takes a dramatic and erotic path that leads to murder. The plot then turns from a simmering love story to a tense police investigation and courtroom drama that only made the novel more interesting and complex. Waters is so good at examining the shifting state of relationships when they’re put under pressure and how her characters react to tragedy and anxiety felt so right to me.

I love the domestic details in this book – the descriptions of the cleaning, the meals, the everyday chores that bring the novel to life and transport us into the post-war society that was so rapidly evolving. These details ground the novel in reality when the characters and the plot take unfamiliar paths and helps to ratchet up the suspense and sense of terror that would plague anyone involved in a forbidden romance or a murder investigation.

I wasn’t disappointed with this latest novel by Sarah Waters and it seems to be the book that will earn her the huge readership that she deserves. She is really gaining a following here in the States – I’ve had conversations with two different patrons this week at my library about how they can’t believe they just discovered her writing. One of the patrons was sad to learn that Waters doesn’t crank the novels out and there was a five year gap between The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for her next novel.

23 thoughts on “The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

  1. She is one of the authors that I have learned about from blogs, though I had seen her books in the bookstores. I have seen some mixed reviews of this one, so I’m glad you enjoyed it!


    1. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was still quite good. I think she’s changed her style a bit over the past two books – different, but I will read whatever she writes!


  2. I am pleased to hear you finally found the right time for this novel and that you enjoyed it. I have only read The Little Stranger by Waters I enjoyed it but went into it thinking it would be a more spooky read. I must try more of Waters’ work though as I’ve been told I’d probably like her novels set further in the past even more.


  3. I enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’ other novels, but haven’t read this one yet. I’ve been slightly hesitant to read it after seeing some quite negative reviews, so it’s good to know that you liked it.


  4. I discovered Sarah Waters through reading The Night Watch, which I enjoyed. I have yet to go back to her earlier work, but enjoyed The Little Stranger. I have this on my kindle thanks to netgalley so I know I need to be reading it soon.


  5. Loved this book! I keep steering customers towards Sarah’s books too…in fact, I’m just remembering a certain woman who needs to be pinned down for her review. Nothing quite like an inquisitive circulation clerk!
    I bought a copy of Tipping the Velvet while in the shops during Christmas…it’s calling.


    1. I’ve been so pleased that The Paying Guests is popular with our patrons. I love hearing back from patrons who I suggest books to – even if the feedback is negative!
      I’ve not read Tipping the Velvet – that and The Night Watch are the two I haven’t tried yet.


    1. I would actually suggest that you start with either Affinity or Fingersmith. They are her best books, in my view, and really introduce the reader to her themes and writing style. But The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests are both quite good too.


  6. Waters is such a talented writer! I loved the setting and domestic details, but felt the murder investigation dragged on too long. The ending was also a little disappointing. The audio production was outstanding.


    1. The ending was frustrating, but I was satisfied. I do think the second half of the book was weak, but I just like her writing and characters so much that I am willing to cut her some slack. 🙂


  7. I saw this the other day and was tempted, but I’m trying to work my way through my shelves so it’s on the backburner for now. I didn’t actually know it was a mystery, that added to it sounds very exciting (though I know her other books are in that vein.)

    Glad you finished it and enjoyed it. There’s always that worry when you put a book down that it won’t seem as good once you get back to it.


  8. I was disappointed with this book, but I know that to some degree that is because I have such high expectations of Sarah Waters. The domestic minutiae and the social setting were wonderful, but I had doubts about the way the plot played out. That said, I’ll be anticipating Sarah Waters’ next book as eagerly as ever.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s