A Book Gift: The Paying Guests

As per the rules of getting married, I had a wedding shower. And it was so beautiful. My mom and my maid of honour and my sisters did such an amazing job. I was completely spoiled rotten too.

Amongst the pots and pans, kitchen utensils, towels and stemware (all of which was gorgeous) there was a bag that contained a pair of mugs and a book each for my husband-to-be and me. This friend knows us well. He got a book about hockey and I got Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests.

This week I finally read it!

paying guests

The Paying Guests is the story of Frances Wray. It is 1922 and she and her mother need to rent out a portion of their home in order to be able to keep it. Both of her brothers died in the war and her father was killed from the shock and heartbreak of the loss. After his death, Frances and her mother discovered he had made a lot of bad investments and so eventually, they rent out a set of rooms to Leonard and Lillian Barber.

The Barbers are a young married couple of the clerk class. Leonard works in assurance and spends his days in London while Lillian stays at home decorating their new home. Despite her best efforts not to get involved in the lives of the lodgers, Frances strikes up a friendship with the lonely Lillian and soon they are sharing their burdens with each other: Lillian confesses that she only married Len because there was a baby on the way and Frances admits that she had been in love once, was about to give everything up for her love but after her father died, she couldn’t leave her mother. Oh, and her love was a woman, Christina.

The novel is split into three parts. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so aware of the distinct parts of a novel before. The first part is a novel of manners. Frances and her mother judging the renters for being of a different class to them while Frances does all the housework and her mother complains about how it must all look to the neighbours. We meet Lillian’s family and can see that they are very different from the Wrays – noisy, numerous and unconcerned about appearances. The second part is a romance as Frances and Lillian fall in love, attempt to keep their relationship and secret and make plans for leaving their current situation and striking out on their own. Surprisingly, the third part is a murder mystery.

I found myself really enjoying the first two thirds of the novel. I was intrigued by the relationship that Frances had with Christina and the one she was now enjoying with Lillian. The social structures of the time, added an element of sadness to the relationship, their having to hide who they were made me sad.

Then we get to the section of the novel that has a murder and the outfall of the murder. I normally love a murder mystery but there was no mystery since as the reader, we knew exactly what happened. This section felt drawn out with too many back and forth visits, a whole slew of brand new characters, and a nervous breakdown that just seemed really out of character. A friend reading at the same time told me she felt like the novel got a bit farcical and once I got there, I kind of agree.

So while I think this novel could have lost about 100 pages, I still enjoyed it. The whole thing was wrapped up quite nicely and there’s no denying that Sarah Waters knows what she’s doing; it was a beautifully written novel. The main cast of characters (that is, the ones that were in play before the murder section) were wonderfully detailed and felt like they could have been actual people. I just…those last 150 pages were tough going and it was mostly relief that I could start something new that I felt once I finished.


10 thoughts on “A Book Gift: The Paying Guests

  1. I felt kind of the same way. There were things I really liked about this book (like the way it portrays Frances, a woman who really goes against the grain of what is acceptable in 1920s England), but agree that it dragged a bit.

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