Book Review: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests coverTitle: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
ISBN: 9781594633119
Pages: 576
Release Date: September 16, 2014
Publisher: Riverhead
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5 out of 5


The year is 1922 and bills are tight for Frances Wray and her mother. In order to make ends meet, they’ve had to take on lodgers, a young couple named Leonard and Lilian Barber. Frances is resentful of this intrusion into her private space, but slowly she and Lilian become friends and Frances begins to appreciate having the Barbers around. But what Frances can’t predict is that her friendship with Lilian will change her irrevocably, and that there will be no turning back from the dark road she is pushed upon.

Snapshot Review:

A dark, atmospheric historical thriller, The Paying Guests takes time to built its characters and setting. It’s a gorgeous, moody novel that will suck you in from its very first page.

Full Review:

Sarah Waters may not be a household name in the United States, but it should be; a Waters novel release is a cause for major celebration. The author writes beautiful, creepy novels with sinister intentions and darkness lurking around every corner. They aren’t scary, as Waters doesn’t rely on loud bangs and noises to unsettle the reader. No, Waters is too subtle and much too insidious for that; she weaves her way into the reader’s brain, getting under their skin completely and utterly.

On the surface, The Paying Guests seems more like a straightforward historical novel than Waters’ previous books. It’s set right after World War I, during a time of great change. Many young men didn’t return from the war, and society is still trying to normalize after the upheaval. As two women alone, Frances and her mother have little power or recourse when it comes to paying the bills. Frances is a sharp, smart woman. If she lived in more modern times, readers would have no doubt she would be able to support herself and her mother. But because of their time period and circumstances, the two women have little option but to allow strangers into their home. Frances resents being backed into this corner, that society will not accept her for the woman she is. It creates a small bitterness in Frances that grows over the course of the book.

I mentioned that The Paying Guests is a thriller, and it absolutely is, but in its own unique way. It’s lyrical and languorous; Waters takes her time meticulously crafting her characters. There’s a pall over the book and the reader knows that something dark is coming. It’s inevitable. The question is what is that thing and how will it come about? And why? The author does an excellent job keeping the reader guessing, but also moving the plot along. She makes you wait, but keeps you fully entertained and engrossed along the way. Rather than impatiently waiting for twists and turns, the reader is savoring each and every carefully measured word of this novel, wanting to preserve the experience as long as possible.

I could go on and on about how much I love The Paying Guests and Sarah Waters, but I’ll stop here because this book is best read with little idea of what to expect. It’s meticulously crafted and beautifully written and is just delicious to read from beginning to end. If you enjoy long historical novels that are brimming with atmosphere, then you should absolutely pick up any of Sarah Waters’ novels immediately.

Other books by Sarah Waters:


The Little Stranger

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  1. Sounds wonderful! Just what I need for this foggy day.
    I knew she sounded familiar. She also wrote “Tipping the Velvet” which is fabulous!

  2. I really enjoyed this novel, but it’s not quite what I was expecting! (I haven’t read any Sarah Waters before.) It was extremely well written, but it kind of reminded me of a soap opera with the [redacted]?

    • Sorry I had to edit your comment, Leah! I didn’t want to give away those parts of the book. The other books of Waters’ I read have had some paranormal aspects to them (whether real or imagined), so you’re right, this one is different and I completely agree that it wasn’t what I was expecting. It didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it, though, and I’m glad you liked it as well!

  3. I struggled with trying to decide whether or not to describe The Paying Guests as a thriller or not. I don’t normally read what is typically classified as a thriller, so to me it totally was. And I too wish that Waters was better known in North America because she is amazing. I didn’t like this book as mush as many of her others as a whole. But taken sentence by sentence, she is one of the best writers of our time.

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