The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters

Note: A copy of The Paying Guests was made available to me by the publisher for review consideration.

YOU GUYS. The Paying Guests is so great! Sarah Waters hasn’t released a new book since 2009, and The Paying Guests was worth every day of the wait. It is about an upper-class woman called Frances who is living in reduced circumstances in interwar London. To keep themselves afloat, Frances and her mother have decided to take in lodgers (paying guests): A married couple, Len and Lilian Barber, who belong to “the clerk class”. Events unfold from there.

Frances is such a good character! At first I thought she was going to be your standard missish Victorian-throwback dutiful daughter girl, but then:

Frances knew the look very well — she was bored to death with it, in fact — because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbors, of tradesmen, and of her mother’s friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in human history, yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char. She said breezily, “You remember my saying about us not having help? I really meant it, you see. The only thing I draw the line at is laundry; most of that still gets sent out. But everything else, I take care of. The ‘brights,’ the ‘roughs’ — yes, I’ve all the lingo!”

and I was immediately all in on Frances. One of my long-term self-improvement projects is to care less about what other people think of me, and I accomplish this by acting like I don’t care what people think of me and by telling embarrassing things in tones of perfect frankness. So I am very admiring of people (in fiction and in life!) who can be brave in that way.

The first two parts of The Paying Guests are as close to perfect as anything I’ve read this year. Waters builds up the relationship between Frances and Lilian with care and delicacy, so that when they finally come together, it feels both joyful and inevitable. The tension between their feelings for each other and the life situations that forbid those feelings is terrific. There’s a gorgeous scene in which Lilian (the less experienced of the two in being with ladies) comes up with a surprise for Frances that lets the two of them be, briefly, as open about their affection for each other as they wish.

Nowhere else in the world, thought Frances, could they have been together so publicly, holding onto each other like this. It wasn’t at all like making love. It was a lark, pure, childish. And yet it was like making love: the thrill and intimacy of it, the never letting go of each other, the clutching of fingers and the bumping of thighs, the racing and matching of heartbeats and breaths.

Then there is an Event.

I am of two minds. As I was reading, I had no problem with the Event. I have a high tolerance for soapy plot twists, probably as a result of early exposure to The Scarlet Pimpernel and the plotline on Guiding Light where Reva is missing, presumed dead, and instead of grieving her and moving on like a normal person, Josh has her cloned. But when Aarti texted me to register an objection to the soapiness of the Event, I had to admit that point was valid. There’s a jarring tonal shift from the [gentle music metaphor] of Frances’s and Lilian’s courtship and character development to the [noisy music metaphor] of the Event and its aftermath. (I don’t know that much about different styles of music, but I chose not to let that gap in knowledge derail my metaphor train.)

In the end, I learned to stop worrying and love the Event. If it seems an unlikely shift from what came before it, Sarah Waters nevertheless puts it to work to produce some genuinely lovely character payoffs. Like Frances, we find ourselves questioning Lilian’s integrity, her investment in her marriage, her honesty with Frances about what she felt and when she felt it; and then with a single line of dialogue, Lilian takes Frances absolutely apart. Confession: I identified with Frances really a lot, and the thing Lilian says to her just devastated me. Ugh Sarah Waters. Why are you so good at being a writer?

Okay! Time for you — whether you are a Sarah Waters fan or a Sarah Waters newbie — to read The Paying Guests! Don’t forget to stop back by here and tell me what you thought of it. Did you find the Event too Eventy? Do you have suggestions to finish off my musical metaphor?

Cover report: At last, a book with different American and British covers! It feels like it’s been so long since that happened. Since I can’t decide which is better (both are not great), I have made a poll. Vote please!


  • I am a Sarah Waters virgin. I’ve been wanting to read her other book – The Little Stranger (I think that was the spooky, atmospheric one) for ages, but just never got around to it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, you know, that one may not be the best one to start with. I haven’t read Affinity yet, but leaving that one out, The Little Stranger is probably my least favorite of hers.

  • I enjoyed reading this book; this is my second Waters book. I don’t have any issue with the event. In fact, I think that’s the heart of it (not saying more as I’m scared I’d spoil it, hehe). Now I look forward to reading the rest of her other books.

    • Gin Jenny

      Aw, yay! I hope you will love them. Are you reading Fingersmith next? That is my favorite (unoriginal, I know).

      • I’ve a few other books to be reviewed but Fingersmith is definitely among those list! 🙂

  • I liked the British cover, only because Sarah Waters covers in the UK are all similar and I’ve always liked the typeface they use, even though I’m not entirely sure it fits the mood of her books.

    I didn’t think the Event was too eventy at all. In the early stages of the book, which I liked, I kept waiting for an Event to happen, so when it arrived, it needed to be pretty big. I think, too, that I expect Sarah Waters novels to be Eventful, so I was primed for something like that to happen.

    What’s the single line of dialogue you’re referring to? I either missed it, or it didn’t make that much of an impression.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes! I am not sure it fits the mood of her books, exactly. It is certainly an attractive font, however.

      You are not the only person to ask this! So maybe I am the only person it had such an impact on, because I identified with Frances so much. It’s when Lilian tells her “I’m sorry you’re not as brave as you thought you were.”

  • Heather

    I have to admit, my feelings on reading this had sort of cooled a bit, but now that you’re talking about this EVENT and FEELINGS and stuff, I’m back to wanting to read it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Goody! I really recommend it. I had the most fun reading it that I’ve had reading anything in a while.

  • I totally couldn’t decide on the cover for this one either as neither one wows me (but I don’t hate either of them) so I am not going to vote. I wish one had been awesome though!
    I haven’t read your whole post because my copy is only now on its way from Powell’s (signed! yay!) but your first couple of sentences make me happy and it’s pretty much guaranteed that I will start reading it as soon as it’s in my hands. I will come back when I’m done to discuss.

    • Gin Jenny

      I also wish one had been awesome. Surely an amazing cover was possible? It’s not SUCH a difficult book to illustrate, right?

      I hope you love this when you get it! Arrive soon, Powell’s copy!

  • The only Sarah Waters I’ve read is Fingersmith and it sounds like I’m seriously missing out!

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, read more! (Actually, Fingersmith is probably her best book. But the others are very worth reading.)