Book Review | The Paying Guests

 The Paying Guests   The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (2014)


The Facts:

  • This is my first Sarah Waters read, and I’ve heard it’s her least liked, in general. Ideally, I would have preferred to read one of her other books first, but since this was a Tournament pick this year, my hands were tied!
  • Sarah Waters has written several other novels, two of which have been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, including Fingersmith andThe Little Stranger.
  • When perusing the FAQ section of Sarah Waters’ official web page, I came across her eloquent answer to the following question: Do you think of yourself as a lesbian writer?

    Yes and no. I am very comfortable with the concept of a ‘lesbian writer’ or a ‘lesbian text’. Most of my novels so obviously foreground passions between women that it has made lots of sense to me to invoke the ‘lesbian’ label. I have many enthusiastic lesbian readers who have been with me right from the start – long before I became popular as a mainstream writer – and I am very grateful to them. At the same time, of course, I don’t sit down at my desk every morning thinking, ‘I am a lesbian writer’. Most of my working life is spent grappling with words and stories – and at that point I am simply ‘a writer’, like any other writer. In other words, lesbian passions and issues are there in my books in the same way that they are there in my life: they are both vitally important to me, and completely incidental.



The setting is 1920s London, post-war turmoil and tension. Our story starts with Frances, a young spinster (apparently that title sets in early back then, as she’s only in her 20s), and her mother in dire straits, needing to take in boarders to retain some degree of financial security. The Barbers, a young lively couple are keen on the move to ritzy Champion Hill, and bring with them a slew of their own problems to add to the mix.


Non-Spoiler Review:

To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by this book. I had heard high praise for Sarah Waters, and, as stated above, would have preferred to start with some of her earlier works. Don’t get me wrong, the woman knows how to write a story, I just think this one fell a little flat.

I really enjoyed the beginning. I loved Frances’ character, and she had an air of mystery around her from the get go. She was still such a young woman, and seemed trapped in both her body and her life, trudging day to day with little happiness and no spark. Enter, the Barbers. I found Lillian an engaging character, though a bit vapid and careless oftentimes. The slow build-up to the “reveal” was really exciting, and had me on the edge of my seat.

BUT… the dishonesty and secrets in the middle section went on WAY too long, and the excitement faded to indifference, which fizzled to boredom pretty quickly. By the end of the book, I was nearly skimming, and just wanted it to be over already. I think 150-200 pages could have EASILY been cut out, and would have resulted in a more engaging and enjoyable story. There was so much repetition, and inclusion of mundane details that were unnecessary to both the plot, as well as to the overall essence of the novel.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about the ending. Without giving anything away, it left me a little unsatisfied in terms of story development, however highly satisfied that it was finally over. Although left wanting, I can’t really generate a different ending that would have left me any happier.

Wow, negative Nelly over here. Waters definitely knows how to create excellent characters, as well as truly set a scene in which you feel like you are there. I often almost felt like I was inside Frances’ head, thinking her thoughts; and in her body, feeling what she was feeling. The woman knows how to write, that’s for sure.

Despite not falling madly in love with this book, it was a nice appetizer, and I will absolutely be checking out her other novels in the near-ish future.


Rating:  [3/5 stars]


Looking for more:

  • Mercedes’ excellent author spotlight video on Sarah Waters
  • Books Speak Volumes review
  • Estella’s Revenge review; and to quote Andi:

    … a less than perfect Sarah Waters’ novel is still pretty kick ass.


Have you read any Sarah Waters? I’m definitely interested in reading more, so tell me what my next Waters book should be?


| The Paying Guests | Riverhead Books | 2014 | hardcover | purchased |



15 thoughts on “Book Review | The Paying Guests

  1. Thanks for the mention! This one definitely had its negative points (dragged), but I hope you’ll enjoy some of her other work better. I still have Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, and The Night Watch on my TBR, but I’m kinda saving them. I dole out Waters to myself in small doses so I’ll always have something left ahead of me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read “The Little Stranger” and loved it. But “Paying Guests”-to put it short and sweet-this is the first book I have EVER put in the trash can right with the cat litter and coffee grounds. No lie.Disturbing book, didn’t want my daughters -or anyone else finding it on my book shelf and reading it.


    1. Can’t win them all, but I am definitely still going to check out Waters’ other works. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy The Paying Guests, it just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.


  2. First of all, I love your review format! It’s so fun to read the facts about the book beforehand. Especially as they pertain to you! I’ve heard mixed reviews about this novel too, so if I am going to try to read something by Waters, I think I’ll start with something more well-received. I love the quote you pulled about her identifying as a “lesbian writer” or not, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words on my review format! As a newbie blogger, it means a lot! Yes, I would have preferred to start with something different, and so far the most suggested has been Fingersmith, if that helps you out at all. I have no doubt that she’s an amazing writer, and I think I will love some of her other books. And truly, if this is as bad as it gets… then we’re all good 🙂 Thanks for commenting!


  3. I have this on my shelf and will attempt it at some point but not feeling the urge just yet. I haven’t read anything by her either, so I have no comparison. I love the way you write thoughtful reviews even if you didn’t love it. If I hated it or DNF, I don’t bother with a review, but if it’s just ok, I get stuck on what to say. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words on my review. I always struggle to write a “negative” review that explains WHY I didn’t like it, because for some people that may be the very reason they WILL like it. Don’t get me wrong, I LIKED this book, I just didn’t LOVE it, but Sarah Waters clearly has mad skills.

      Liked by 1 person

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s