The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (2014)
- 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.
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 |