Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Word of mouth is really an amazing thing. If it weren't for the recommendation that I received several times from the same librarian than I never would have checked out Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests and I never would have thoroughly enjoyed (and may I say raced through) this almost 600-page book just to be systematically crushed by the ending. 

Despite my disappointment in those last 100 pages, I really did enjoy The Paying Guests.  Waters' writing is really beautiful and since the story takes place in 1922 England, she obviously did meticulous research to make sure she was accurate to the time. There's a sense of longing in every sentence: first for normalcy (a majority of the young men have been killed in World War I, including the central family's two sons) and then a longing for passion and love mixed in with what seems like the eternal search for acceptance and belonging.  So little seems to happen (almost the entire book takes place in a big, creaky, falling-apart house) but then again, so much also happens.

The premise of the book is simple but intriguing.  When Frances and her mother run out of funds/realize their debts are larger than they believed, they take in boarders, or 'paying guests.'  There's a strange mixing of private and public lives here and class is a major issue too. Frances and her mother are old money and part of the upper class in a London suburb. Lillian and Leonard, the boarders, are of the rising middle class, ambitious twenty-somethings who are relative newlyweds.  When Frances and Lillian start an affair, everything is turned upside-down.

And from there, the story takes an unexpected twist, or at least it was unexpected for me. I don't normally read thrillers but this book was really suspenseful in the best way, and quite passionate without being graphic in the least.  Eventually, these ladies get themselves into a predicament which Waters takes about 250 pages to explain in detail, and then it resolves itself in about two pages. There was so little payoff to this great lead-up.

So, The Paying Guests is enjoyable, but undeniably long. The end just doesn't live up to the rest of the book.

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