I’ve only ever read one other book by Sarah Waters and that was Fingersmith, which was excellent, so my hopes were really high for The Paying Guests, perhaps a little too high.
The Paying Guests is set after World War I in 1920s England in a quiet, upper class neighborhood, not untouched by the war. The Wrays have suffered much, both sons taken overseas and after Mr. Wray’s death, it is left to the spinster Frances Wray and her mother to look after the ailing house and their dwindling finances. The solution is to take on lodgers, paying guests, so to speak: Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young, married couple. But their entrance into Frances’ life leads to intrigue, secrets, and scandal.
I was disappointed by this book. It is well written. It’s prose is beautiful and the story itself has a lot of potential. The time period is intriguing. It provides a good background. There was so much I wanted from this book but just didn’t get. There were parts (mostly the beginning and middle) that were thrilling. It starts slow, picks up, and then grinds to a halt again. The story takes a really dark turn toward the end that I couldn’t get behind and found really off-putting. It starts with one rather distasteful (and graphic) thing and leads to another. My problem with the end was that it didn’t seem entirely realistic and it wasn’t at all satisfactory. It went from a romantic period piece to something of a noir. The shift is jarring. After everything that happens, the end was just anticlimatic and flimsy. A lot of the novel was like that: a ton of buildup and then not the payoff I was looking for.
In addition, the characters were very difficult to connect with. Frances was not an easy character to sympathize with, often wrapped up in herself and a little bullying. You’re meant to see her as self-sacrificing, but I found the repetitive chords she struck grating. She was fairly cold and distant throughout, and I found it hard to relate to her way of thinking. Lily was a little bit better, but mostly because you just felt sorry for her. She was the most abused person in the entire novel, taken advantage of by pretty much everyone. Leonard was a huge dick the whole time and was essentially a caricature of the dandy husband. And then Mrs. Wray was just a noncharacter. She wasn’t fleshed out nearly enough. She was portrayed as a nervous, frail widow, mourning the loss of her husband and sons, but there must have been more to her than that. The relationship between mother and daughter could have been so much more. I don’t know if what was holding them back was the writing or the time period.
It wasn’t an awful read. It was pretty good up until the end. Watching Frances’s relationship with the Barbers develop is compelling and it’s what kept me reading. It makes the slow start forgivable. Also the examination of the upper class and the so-called clerk class in juxtaposition to the ramifications of societal and economic shifts post-war is fascinating. But the end still kind of ruined things for me. Unless you are really interested in a slow period piece, I’d skip it. Read Fingersmith instead.
Until next time!