Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Historical Fiction 5*'s
1920 Historical Fiction

The most apt word I can think of to describe this book is sumptuous! This is a book to delight the reader with the layers of detail which build a picture of a household in London in the 1920’s. Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances found themselves struggling to make ends meet after the loss of the men during World War I and the solution is to take in some paying guests, their gentrified term for lodgers. With the household rejigged to make space for a couple of rooms the day arrives for Leonard and Lillian Barber to move in. Lily sets about decorating her rooms in her own style while Leonard works away at his job at an insurance company and the household begins to adapt to the new routine. The Wrays meanwhile remain suspended in the disagreeable place between accepting and despising the changes the new occupants bring to the house.

As you would expect from a Sarah Waters novel there is a sapphic element to this tale which has far reaching consequences for a number of the characters so much so that the household becomes embroiled in a court case. The scenes during the investigation made for fascinating reading especially as it was underpinned by research which was used to give a feeling of authenticity and at times my heart was in my mouth as the wheels of justice turned.

The other area of research which shone through although without ever overpowering the story line was the role of women during this age. With those men that had returned from the war often destitute the role of women was at a turning point but for most the freedom to make their own decisions was a long way into the future. Lilian has little to do with her days except to put fripperies up around her rooms while Frances fills her days with the housework that only a few years before would have been performed by servants. Her free time sees her walking to London to visit her old friend who has more independence, having rented some rooms and making money by typing for money. Mrs Wray still makes visits to friends and her worthy causes, showing her determination to carry on as before, but these interactions are marked of earlier times, whereas the younger characters are forging ahead uncertainly and with differing degrees of success into the new age.

All of that is underpinned by the brilliant characters, all from the most minor, to those who hold the spotlight, are exquisitely drawn, the nuances betray a depth makes this a book to savour and I found my reading speed slowing to immerse myself in these details. With no character being all bad, or all good, this book is one that will make you question what you have learnt through Frances’ telling of the tale from her point of view; who really drove the action? What secrets were bought into the unsuspecting Wray household? And maybe most importantly what on earth happened after the book ended. Yes there is an open(ish) ending, not a device I often agree with but this one is clever, it doesn’t smack of laziness or a wish to give each reader the ending they want but mirrors the content of this rich and luxurious book, one of those books which you know will give up even more details on a second read, a definite ‘keeper.’


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

44 thoughts on “The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

  1. Good to hear you enjoyed this so well, Cleo. I’ve been wondering what you thought of it. The premise sounds interesting, and it sounds as though the story has a solid look at that era of history as well as a focus on the actual plot.


    1. Thanks Margot – the delay was due to life and definitely not a lack of enjoyment! I loved it, so much so I wanted to travel back in time to experience it for real although on reflection I’m not sure I’d be able to fit into the social mode of the times. I will certainly be recommending this one!


  2. So glad you loved this! I also found myself slowing down as I read this book–both to savor the writing and because I didn’t want it to end! And-at first I wAs frustrTed by the ending but upon reflection I decided it was just right! Great review!


  3. Ive read so many different opinions of this book and all from people whose opinions I trust that I’m totally confused whether I will like this or not. Guess there is only one way to find out!


    1. If I’m honest I knew I’d love this one because it features a (fictional) historical trial which is a key interest of mine as well as some rich writing which every now and again makes a change from my usual reading matter. It does have quite a slow start but in my opinion, no word is wasted.


  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s reading this slowly – I’m almost rationing myself as I don’t want it to end! It’s exquisite. The worst thing is knowing I’ll have to wait four or so years for another Sarah Waters novel!


  5. I so enjoyed Sarah Waters’ Affinity… unfortunately my ex gave me Fingersmith for my birthday about a month before she dumped me and I haven’t been able to read any Waters since 😦 When I get over that, your review tells me that I have excellent catching up to do.


  6. I liked Affinity, Fingersmith and The Little Stranger, but I could not get into this one. I thought it took forever for something to happen, and I gave up after about 200 pages. After reading your review, I might give it another try! Maybe I was not in the right mood for it…


      1. I find her prose keeps you glued to the page – but you DO have to be in the right mood for that sort of book, rather than wanting something faster moving. I think, on certain occasions, I’d probably feel the same – for example, I let Burial Rites fall by the wayside in the summer in favour of something faster moving, but it’s had so many mentions in end-of-year roundups I’ll have to start it again, and stick with it this time. Cleo’s right – the second half of the book is moving really rapidly; I struggled to put it down last night!


  7. I saved your review until I finished reading it! Really enjoyed it – the writing style, the historical time, the characters, the ending. My heart was in my throat during the trial – would they come forward? Was Lilian who she seemed? A great start to my 2015 reads!!


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