The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I remember picking up a paperback copy of ‘Tipping the Velvet’, Sarah Waters’ first novel, in a London bookshop, years ago. It wasn’t because I’d heard of the author or of the book, it was because the cover caught my eye and because I spotted a Virago apple on the spine.

Since then her star has risen and risen to such glorious heights; I had to wait and wait in a very long library queue – as long a queue as I have ever waited in – to read ‘The Paying Guests.’

I wish that I could say that I loved it, but I can’t quite say that.

Maybe my expectations were just a little too high.

Maybe I was the wrong reader. I’ve always believed that how we respond to books is heavily influenced by the books we’ve read before. I’ve read many books from this period; and ‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ by F Tennyson Jesse, a book that Sarah Waters has acknowledged as a significant influence, is a particular favourite of mine ….

As I read ‘The Paying Guests’ I found things to love, I found things to admire, but I also found things that I didn’t love and things that disappointed me.

The story began beautifully: on an afternoon in 1922, Mrs Wray and her grown-up daughter, Frances, were at home, on the outskirts of London, awaiting the arrival of their first paying guests. Mr Wray had died leaving little but debt, his two sons had been killed in the Great War, and so his wife and daughter had to manage alone. Frances had persuaded her other that, rather than sell up, she would take on the domestic duties that had been done by servants in the past and they would let part of the house. She could manage. They could manage. But now that the day had come Mrs Wray’s worries had returned and Frances was anxious about how it would all work.

18485452The Barbers were a young married couple, and they unsettled the house. They did nothing wrong. But they were different, they were so much more modern, so much more relaxed in the way that they lived.

Sarah Waters captures the discomfort of having change in your home, of having to be ever aware of other people, of having to deal with things – small but significant things that you never had to deal with before – quite perfectly. And as she slowly builds up to the dramatic incident that will be the centrepiece of her story she reveals more about her characters; the picture becomes clearer, the psychology becomes clearer, and it all makes sense.

The details are so well chosen, and the story is so very well rooted in its era; that and the sheer quality of the writing made this part of the story, where very little happened but it was clear that something was going to happen, utterly compelling.

The characters were not likeable, but they were believable. I appreciated that there were no heroes and no villains, just real, fallible human beings.

That dramatic incident was inevitable, but when it came it was shocking. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

That shifted the story, and that was where things started to go wrong.

The remainder of the book was concerned with the fallout from that incident, and though it was compelling, though it had significant things to say, about marriage, about justice, about change in the post-war world, it was compromised by the love story that Sarah Waters so clearly wanted to play out.

I could accept the blurring of right and wrong, though I didn’t like it; there were other thingsthat I found much more difficult to accept.

I felt that Sarah Waters compromised her characters – in some cases she made them blind – to reach the ending she wanted. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the wrong ending, though I give her great credit for not making it a definitive ending; there were clearly things that had to be faced in the future.

(I wish I could explain a little more, I wish I could ask certain questions, but I think that it’s far too early in this book’s life to write about specific plot points.)

The emotions rang true, so much rang true, but those things that didn’t ring true, pulled me right out of the story.

That’s why, though I found much to appreciate in this book, my lasting feeling is one of disappointment.

15 responses

  1. Oh dear. I have seen so many positive reviews of this novel. It’s a shame it disappointed you. I have only read one Sarah Waters book before and with so many books waiting for me, i can’t decide if I want to read The Paying Guests. It might come down to the mood I’m in.

    • I think this one might read better further down the line when you can discuss specifics without worrying about spoiling it for others. And there would be something to be said for reading Sarah waters books in order and seeing how she developed as a writer. I haven’t loved them all, but they all have something to recommend them.

  2. I’m reading/listening to the book now and the dramatic incident has just occurred. I feel like the book is already a little too long in getting here, but am looking forward to seeing how it plays out. We’ll have to talk later 😉

  3. I love Sarah Waters and consider her one of my favorite authors, however I have struggled with her latest. I started it a month ago, shortly before I left for London. I had to turn it in to the library, but decided to buy a copy in England to read on the plane home. Well, I didn’t do much reading on the plane (too tired) and I am now finding myself reluctant to return to The Paying Guests. Something about it just isn’t up to her usual. I’m sure I’ll eventually read the end especially after reading your comments, but I’m not that enthusiastic about it.

  4. It is so strange the different responses a book can provoke . I really enjoyed PGs snd would say it is probably her best book yet.
    I had read A Pin To See The Peep Show and Criminal Justice as well as seeing Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic all of which she cites as inspirations so I Kind of knew what the story was going to be and so expected it . I think the atmosphere of sexual tension she created was incredible .

    • I’d certainly say that a lot of things were done well, and I know that if this had been a debut novel or a book by a lesser known author I would be using words like ‘promising’ but with an author like Sarah Waters who has written better books ….

  5. I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed by this one. I’ve seen (and heard) quite a spread of responses to The Paying Guests, and while I like the sound of the premise, I’m coming down on the side of passing on it. I’ve heard one or two things about the incident and suspect I might find the latter sections of the book problematic for the sorts of reasons you mention in your review. Thanks for reviewing this one and being so open about your response to it.

  6. It’s on my wish list, but it sounds I need to be in the right place to read it as I do want to. I might suggest to my book club, some if her earlier work.

  7. It is very difficult to talk about this book, isn’t it??
    I liked it a lot – not her best, but brilliantly tense and involving. And I preferred the second half to the first, as romantic storylines never captivate me completely.

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