Review: The Paying Guests

July is almost over, but the books go on and on. Anyone else feel like their TBR is impossibly long? I’m afraid I won’t get to them all before I die. But I’m forging ahead, and now I can cross a book by Sarah Waters off my list–The Paying Guests.


I had such an odd experience with this book. When I came across the title online, I read the blurb and was so excited to check out this historical fiction book that I took it home from the library almost immediately. But for some reason, between getting it home and opening the cover a few days later, I wasn’t so eager. I read about 20 pages the first day just to get a feel for it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the writing drew me in and how quickly I was getting through it. But the next 300 pages drug on and on. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to finish, but when I reached Part 3, the pace changed entirely, almost as if it were a whole new story. I thought I was coming around to love it after all–but then the ending disappointed, and still I’m left with mixed opinions.

About the book: The first World War has just ended, leaving Frances and her mother alone in their prestigious (but slowly crumbling) London home in the 1920’s. The men of the family have died, the women have little money left, the maid has been let go, and Frances feels it is her duty to stay on and look after her mother and the house–their home and reputation as upper-class women the only things they have left. All of Frances’ time is devoted to cleaning and repairing things around the house, a shabby life her mother is embarrassed by, but Frances doesn’t mind the grubby chores. What she does mind is the life of possibilities she’s given up to be there, and how narrow her world has become. When the money can’t be stretched any further, Frances and her mother must stoop to the necessity of renting out the rooms on the upper floor to a couple of “paying guests,” or “lodgers,” the only polite way to refer to the situation. Both Frances and her mother are wary of sharing their home with strangers, but the Barbers seem friendly enough. What begins as politeness develops into cautious friendship, and even romance. The devotion is severely tested, however, when a criminal case ties Frances and Mrs. Barber together, but also muddles the purity of their relationship. Frances must consider her past choices, her options for the future, and her very essence and conscience:

“Braving the tilt of the bed, she carefully lowered herself back down. But there was no ease, no relief, to be found in any position; no possibility of escape from herself.”

Death always leaves people reevaluating their lives. It makes them do strange or crazy things. Frances is a highly introspective character who gives miles of depth to every word and gesture. She is the voice of reason when it seems everything has been derailed, and even through the confusion of a complicated death she can find rationale and restore order:

“Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response. You know that, don’t you?”

The most interesting aspect of this book for me was its division into three parts. Each one is so distinct and has its own close focus. The first: a bit of history–how Frances’ family is coping with the aftermath of the war, how they live, who they are, what they must do to survive. The second: a romance–Frances finds she has a crush on Lilian Barber, and though she tries to pass it off as a friendship, Lilian surprises her by acting as though she returns the affection. The third: a murder, a bit of mystery, a fast-paced police inquiry that leads to a trial. There’s no break in the story between the sections, so even though the switch seemed drastic, it wasn’t jarring or annoying. And one thing remained constant through each part–Frances’ fascination with Lilian. The progression of their relationship is the main point of the story, and it certainly has its ups and downs to keep the reader guessing. With Frances as our narrator, the reader has a clear sense of her personality and trustworthiness, but Lilian is quite another character. Even though we see Lilian through Frances’ skewed and loving perspective, Lilian’s words and mannerisms come across as odd and sometimes suspicious. She brings out all sorts of emotions in Frances:

“Would she return to her old life, her loveless, Lilianless life, like a snake having to fit itself back into a desiccated skin? The idea made her panic, and the panic itself dismayed her. For was that all, she though bleakly, that love ever was? Something that saved one from loneliness? A sort of insurance policy against not counting? How real was the passion she had with Lilian, after all?”

Worst part: the plot lags at points. It becomes so bogged down with Frances’ repetitive worries and the minutia of life on Champion Hill that I did believe the book could be written to the same–or even better–effect, with a careful culling equivalent of maybe a hundred pages. That being said…

Best part: The language of this book is so beautiful. Even at the slowest parts of the plot when I debated shelving the book until I was ready to try again, the language drew me in. There are so many marvelous metaphors, and Frances’ commentary on life and morals as a woman in the 1920s is adept and intriguing. Descriptions of people, places, and even objects are captivating and undeniably entertaining. The range of Frances’ emotions in The Paying Guests takes the language from light to dark and everything in between. The comparisons are superb:

“The walk took her to another set of padded benches, with a lot of unhappy-looking people on them, also nibbling at sandwiches. She realised that the people had come from another court, with another trial going on in it, with its own judge, its own jury, its own clerks and barristers; and that there was another court beyond that. And she had a vision of the building with its veined marble walls as a sort of stone monster into which crimes, guilts, griefs were continually being fed, in which they were even now being digested, and from which all too soon they would be revoltingly expelled.”

About the ending: The finale fell a little flat. Throughout the book, Frances struck me as the kind of character who was not afraid of taking chances and acting on her impulses, but then she became so determined just to “wait and see.” The end of the trial had Frances poised for all kinds of life changes, and the reader is left with the impression that she does intend to pursue the lifestyle she wanted, but that’s not shown. Frances does very little at the end of the book, which disappointed me both in terms of where the plot could have gone for maximum effect, and of Frances’ bravery diminishing when she seemed to have so much potential to stand up for herself and try to make right the things that she thought had gone wrong. I did appreciate that the reader was left with the possibility of a hopeful future for Frances, but frankly, after so much suspense surrounding the death in this book, I thought it wrapped up a little too conveniently. thepayingguests2

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It’s not that I disliked this book, I just didn’t like it, either. I am glad I read it; it’s a unique and interesting book, but even while I was glad I’d given it a fair chance, I was also annoyed that I put off new books from my July book haul to finish this library book now. The slowness of the plot–despite its solidity–detracted from the experience for me, but the writing style made up for that. If the ending had been as impressive as I was hoping, I’d have liked the book more overall. It wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t the book for me. I’d love to hear how other readers deal with books they just don’t love as much as they expected–do you finish? Do you quit in the middle? Does anyone else feel bad leaving a book half-read?

Further Recommendations:

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt would be great if you like the idea of reading about a character who knows more about a suspicious death that he/she admits. Ordinary details of dealing with death become haunting when one may have been closely involved with the death and/or the killer(s). To learn more, check out my review of The Secret History here.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train would be a great choice if you’re interested in a faster-paced version of a mysterious London death. This one uses a more modern setting, but again the death hits close to home for the main character and she’s involved in the investigation. To learn more, check out my review of The Girl on the Train here.

Coming up next: Stay tuned for a review of Ruth Ware’s debut thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood. Main character Nora is staying deep in the woods with friends she quickly realizes are all but strangers, but she’s stuck with them as they discover they are not alone in the woods. When she wakes up, all she can remember is that someone is dead. Until then,

Try to avoid murders. They’re always messy, in one way or another.

The Literary Elephant


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