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The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters This is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary suspense, you might be better off skipping the reviews and just reading it.

The setting is London in 1922, where economic necessity forces Frances Wray and her mother to rent out rooms in their home to a young couple, the eponymous “paying guests” – a term they prefer to “lodgers” to save face in their genteel neighborhood. The arrival of Leonard and Lilian Barber shakes up their lives in unexpected ways, especially for Frances, a 26-year-old former activist who is now caught devoting most of her time to the upkeep of the old house.

Do note that this is a very slow starter: the first half is setup and momentum builds gradually; it took me around 100 pages to get invested. The wait does pay off, however, as the second half is a gripping psychological thriller that kept me up nearly all night. I wouldn't call it fast-paced, any more than the other Waters novels I've read (Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet), because Waters develops her scenes in full lifelike detail, not stinting on any of the subtleties of human interaction. But at the same time, she builds up tension and suspense so expertly that, once the plot gets going, it never feels slow.

Meanwhile, the character development is excellent, and their feelings and relationships ring true throughout. In that sense I actually preferred The Paying Guests to Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet; the latter two are great fun and get off to quicker starts, but each has plot and character moments that I found over-the-top and unconvincing. The Paying Guests is a little quieter, its drama a little more restrained, and its protagonists a little more mature; without sacrificing excitement, it feels entirely realistic. Frances’s reactions consistently had me thinking, “yes, yes, that’s exactly how that would feel,” whether the situation is mundane or extreme, and Frances herself is an intriguing character with more depth than is immediately evident. The secondary characters are also colorful and convincing. I particularly liked the honest, sympathetic - and imaginative - way Waters portrays the effects of the leads' actions on other people, both those close to them and people they'd never heard of. The ripple effect is in full force here.

And it works as a period piece too, with lots of detail and atmosphere. I especially enjoyed the aspect of the book dealing with the criminal justice system; the people involved in it and the sequence of events are realistically drawn (not always the case in novels). And the writing, too, is very good. I am a reader easily annoyed by figurative language – many authors seem to include it more to show off than because it contributes to the story – but even I could not fail to appreciate such fresh and apt turns of phrase. For instance, in a tense moment: “They embraced, two hearts thudding like fists on the opposite sides of a bolted door.”

This book didn’t change my life, and the end seemed a bit of a cop-out, but it is excellent, high-quality entertainment, an intense and savvy psychological thriller that I would not hesitate to recommend (unless you are offended by lesbian sex, in which case this is not the book for you!).

Disclosure: I received a free copy for review through the Amazon Vine Program.