The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I read this book last year, so it’s taken me a while to write this, but this was one of those books that I have not stopped thinking about since finishing it. Considering I read it in October, that’s saying something! This is definitely one of my favourite books of all time, and I look forward to re-reading it in maybe five years time.

Sarah Waters is a beautiful writer. I had wanted to read her for a long time, so was very happy when I was given this book :) I basically knew nothing about her books except that they’re quite literary and she’s been writing pretty consistently for many years to much acclaim. Such as being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times!

Exhibit A:

This book has everything: romance, forbidden love, mystery, intrigue, family dramas, everything. I loved all of these things, so I was pretty set. Set in a post-WWI London, I found this a very historically interesting setting to read about. Frances and her mother have lost family members, wealth and class standing over the course of the War and are now in desperate need of some lodgers to bring some money in. Cue Lilian and Leonard Barber. We are slowly introduced to the these characters through the eyes of Frances as she becomes accustomed to the newlyweds living in her home. It was interesting to see the ways in which Frances and her mother reacted differently to the Barber’s and the overall concept of needing to bring in lodgers. Frances’ mother does not cope well with her change in social standing. She doesn’t want to take any help from her friends as she feels embarrassed at her situation. I found it hard to deal with Mrs Wray and her attitude, especially as Frances was left to take up all the work in the house without her mother being particularly grateful. I understand the situation Mrs Wray was in would’ve been difficult for a number of reasons, but I really enjoy Frances’ attitude of just getting things done, rather than dwelling on what they had once had.

The romance in this book was absolutely beautiful. I could totally transport myself to the house that Lilian and Frances were sharing and the tension between them as they tried to hide their growing feelings for each other. Set in a time when same sex relationships were not only looked down upon, but also largely ignored, I found this particularly interesting to read about. We learn of Frances’ family’s reaction to Frances previously having a love affair with a girl she went to college with and are shown the way in which Mrs Wray handles this revelation; by mostly ignores it. We also are shown Lilian’s reaction to finding out that she is in love with Frances, a very foreign concept to her as both a newlywed and someone who has never contemplated her sexuality before as it just wasn’t the usual thing to do.

So not only do we have forbidden love, (in several ways, one person is married and it is also a same sex relationship in a time that did not welcome this), we soon have a murder. This is when shit gets real. This was so intense and exciting it was hard to put the book down. This takes up a large portion of the book – about two thirds – and I really, really enjoyed this, as I really had no idea what was going to happen. There were several outcomes that could have happened and I honestly had no idea which way it was going to go. For me, I was very happy with the ending. It all made sense to me, but wasn’t entirely perfect and neatly wrapped up (which can be a bit annoying sometimes).

This book left me thinking about a lot of things and I still think about it pretty often. I am officially a fan of Sarah Waters and look forward to reading all of her other books, which deal with similar topics: same sex relationships in historical settings, with some added drama thrown in.


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