Book Review || The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


Set in 1920s London, this was my first Sarah Waters and had been chosen as our December book in the Sunny Sweet Pea Book Club (which has been planned for a while, hence the photos taken in early Autumn as I was a keen bean!). The curveball in this novel is the transitory female perspective, which rather dominates with a women driven narrative. The men in this novel, although appearing regularly, are portrayed as diminished characters compared to the many women. The novel opens explaining the basic plot – mother and daughter in a genteel household are forced to take in lodgers after their late father and brothers leave them penniless. Their social status is most definitely interrupted by a loud and worldly working-class couple, the Barbers, who fill their house with colour, music and marital disarray.

However, it does start to unravel and the novel has some rather unexpected shockers, which pierce through the otherwise rather long-winded descriptions (From other reviews I’ve since read of her further works, Sarah Waters is the queen of “setting the scene”). I also understood the title of the book “The Paying Guests” but do find it rather an odd choice, especially as it’s not hugely got anything to do with the fact they’re lodgers, other than pointing out their social status and embarrassment at the fact that they need additional income. There are far more significant plot lines that could be grasped onto for title inspiration.

I did enjoy the contrast of characters in this story, the evident portrayal of class and feminism, and the crossing of boundaries from most characters involved. The two main characters – Frances, the drab old fashioned spinster, and Mrs Barber, the flamboyantly fashionable tenant do build tension and have two particularly poignant dramatic moments. However, for a book that could have been fast paced and exciting throughout, the beginning and ending do somewhat drag on through minute repetitive details for, quite literally, hundreds of pages. I very much enjoyed the plot, although I would have hoped for more of a dramatic ending, however, the novel as a whole swings far too much from all to nothing and back again, leaving you hoping for a little less drama in parts, and a little more action in others. Overall, not a bad read, with some great plot twists but I couldn’t help but feel throughout that there could have been a better balance of long winded descriptive sections, and those, albeit shorter sections, with passionate lesbian sex or horrific murders. Casually, as you do…

Rating: 6.5/10

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