Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I am (re)reading and reviewing The Paying Guests book as part of the Waterstones Book Club, alongside Kariss, AmandaSophie and Kara. You can follow our discussions on Twitter under the hashtag #WBookclub.

I didn’t love The Paying Guests the first time I read it. It started off strongly, but once I reached part 2 I lost interest. So for this book club I decided to read the part I didn’t enjoy and see if I better understood the story.

“It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa — a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants — life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.


With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life — or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.” GoodReads.

It took me a while to realise The Paying Guests was by the same author as Fingersmith, a novel I read recently and loved. I wasn’t prepared for the switch in time period. The Gothic element to Sarah Waters’ nineteenth-century novels is what hooked me to Fingersmith and what I lacked in the familiar 1920s of The Paying Guests

Frances and Lilian were wonderful characters, so different and brilliant in their own way.

It was hard to like Lilian, so childlike and feeble and perhaps a little emotionally manipulative. By the second read she didn’t feel so threatening. Waters, at least, intended her to come across a someone who is honest and true (if only to Frances). The reader is placed in the position of Frances, you understand her doubts, lust, love and loyalty, but you forget the enormity of what she asks of Lilian.

It’s easy to sympathise with the known. Like Frances I don’t know what it is like to be married, and as we never see the marriage from the point of Lilian or Leonard. Frances immediately seems more open, down to earth and comfortable with herself, while at the same time needing so much to escape.

The relationship between the two women is so tender, and you want their fantasies of a life together to be realised. You can understand Lilian’s inability to engage beyond this fantasy. It is put to us that Frances and her mother are on harder times than their young lodgers, but life is easier for Francis than it seems. To abandon her life, to be with Lilian, is comparatively complication free. To leave your husband, that is quite another thing.

That said, I never liked Lilian. She was so hard to like once Frances got closer to her.

Unfortunately, this book is about 200 words too long for me, too drawn out. I found myself drifting in and out of the court scenes, uninterested by the wider world suffocating the protagonists.

It’s been a pleasure to participate in the Waterstones Book Club, you can find my fellow book clubbers reviews below which I’ll update as they’re posted.

Kariss: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters Review: The Waterstones Blogger Book Club. Twitter: @kariss_leigh
Amanda: Book review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Twitter: @onemorepage
Sophie: Reviewed the Book.Twitter:  @sophieRTB
Kara: The Book Review: Sarah Waters ‘the Paying Guests’. Twitter: @KaraWillow

You can buy The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters at Waterstones.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

  1. Reactions to The Paying Guests seem to have been enormously mixed. I loved it though. I loved the development of Frances and Lillian’s friendship/romance, and one of my favorite and most suspenseful plot types is where people have done a Wrong Thing and we’re waiting to see if they’re going to get caught.


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