Historical Fiction

The Paying Guests

I’m not sure where I got this book actually, but I do know that it has been on my shelf for years. And over that time, I have seen reviews for multiple of Waters’ books and it’s generally seemed that people enjoy her writing. But I don’t know, I was just never in the mood for it. And I’m a huge mood reader, so… Anyways, I was looking for my next audiobook and this one popped up as a suggestion and the time finally seemed right.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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It’s the early 1920s in London, right after the end of WWI, and many families are mourning the losses they experienced during the war. In particular, the elderly-ish Mrs. Wray, lost both sons and her husband and now she and her spinster daughter, Frances, are facing a loss of financial fortune that causes them to have to take on lodgers in order to afford the upkeep of their home. The arrival of the young Lilian and Leonard Barbar shakes up the routines of Mrs. Wray and Frances in ways both small and large, expected and unexpected, and, eventually, quite devastatingly.

Let me start with the writing, because it was spectacular. Wow – can Waters create a space, a mood, an ambiance. This was such an atmospheric, slow roll, setting-heavy historical fiction, with a line of tension running through it from the very first page that, even though everything seems normal, still fills you with a sense of impending doom that’s hard to shrug off. It was a bit like reading a slow unravelling, even if that wasn’t what actually happened (though, mini spoiler, it for sure actually happened). Another thing I really enjoyed was the way Waters wrote and described the realities of female/female relationships within the social and socioeconomic classes represented and within the time period. I was really into both how familiar it is (because love is and always has been love), yet at the same time, how the sensibilities of the time period are infused into the everyday experiences and interactions of the women. It was a really fascinating juxtaposition – something totally new to me and completely interesting.

As far as the plot, I am not totally sure how into it I was. I loved the way the novel started – the atmosphere and build of the heat between Frances and Lilian – was tone and interpersonal melodrama at its best. However, it got a little weirdly tiresome and bogged down in the middle, at least for me. And what’s strange is that I cannot figure out what I would suggest cutting to “fix” that. I think all the characters acted and developed in realistic and necessary ways. And in fact, I liked the way that Frances and Lilian’s relationship suffered/changed under the stressors that the “tragedy” they experienced together brought them. And OMG there were so many stressors. I don’t want to get too into that though because, you know, actual spoilers. Long story short, I thought the way Waters wrote them was spot on. And the slower(ish) development of the plot, written to allow that focus on character growth to happen, was necessary. But something about it was just off, a little disappointing maybe, for me. Perhaps it was just the fact that the “event” seemed almost too contrived, it changed the feel of the story too abruptly, and not really in a way I had been looking for/needing. And it evaporated the atmospheric tension a bit too much for me. Or well, just shifted its direction really, because there was a ton of tension afterwards too. But like I said, I wasn’t really looking for a change, so it felt too hasty. However, in fairness to Waters, after that shift, she really did a great job deconstructing Frances’ mental state with all the strain she was under. And I got back into things for the most part, if not to the extent I was invested at the beginning, after that. Finally, the ending…it was kinda of…deflating. I don’t know. It was realistic, completely so, and I liked the way Frances and Lilian left off, despite/because of everything. Yet, it also almost seemed anticlimactic. Weird vibes to end on.

Overall, I think this was a really great historical fiction. I really felt the time period come alive. This novel was the most interesting combination of settings/styles that alternately recalled Rebecca, The Secret History and Downton Abbey. I’d definitely say that if you have read/watched and enjoyed any of those, you should try this book. And I also for sure will be trying something else by Waters, because the plot was my biggest gripe with this one, and that, of course, will be completely different in another of her works, but the amazing writing and ambience-building should carry over!

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