Readers’ Advisory 1: The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters

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Quick Facts

Author: Sarah Waters

Published 2014 Riverhead Books. $28.95

567pp. 9781594633119

Historical Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ, Crime drama

Available in print, eBook, and Audible

Why I Read It

Sarah Waters has been on my literary radar since I first discovered Tipping the Velvet on my suite-mates bookshelf in undergrad. I tried to read it, got maybe halfway through, but I had to put it down because of schoolwork. I ended up watching the miniseries on Netflix a few months later and loved it. I’ve been wanting to read another Sarah Waters novel since then, but none of them called out to me like The Paying Guests did late last year. Something about the ‘respectable family left in dire straights by dead husband/father’s debts and needing to take in lodgers, romance blossoms between landlady and tenant” trope caught me. I haven’t read it in a long time, and I know from reputation that Waters has a deft touch at storytelling.

TLL’s Tag

Circumstances dictated the Wrays take in lodgers, but nothing prepared them for the results.

The Rundown

It’s 1922 in London. Peace has been won, but it came with a price. For Frances Wray and her mother Emily, that price was two dead sons, a dead husband/father, and mountain of bad investments. We meet Frances, Miss Wray, waiting for the couple that has rented out the upper portion of the Wray home. Both Frances and her mother are apprehensive of having to let their rooms and the reaction from their neighbors. Many encounters happen between the four, including a friendship between Frances and Mrs. Lilian Barber, a disastrous game of Snakes and Ladders between Frances, Lilian, and Leonard Barber, and a crime of passion.

Here’s what I think

First, this book is long. 567 pages long, to be exact. Divided into three parts, the length of the story is neither tedious nor unnecessary. It doesn’t even register as being quite as long except when the reader is not actively reading. That is, upon first look one notices that it is long, and whenever the reader has set the book aside for a period of time, the length can seem daunting when restarting. However, when reading, the length is practically unnoticeable. It does not detract from the popularity or fabulousness of the book, but it does bear noting.

Waters plants subtle hints throughout the novel about the way we should feel about Leonard Barber. He has a distinct slimyness to him, especially in his conversations with Frances. He’s a touch over familiar in manner and speech. Also, by now it is obvious that when Waters writes, there will be lesbians involved. Frances is no exception, having fallen madly in love with a female friend during the War. The reveal, though, is handled with skill. It is done in stages. We meet the ex-girlfriend first, though we know not that she is such. Then, in a moment of hesitating honesty, Frances reveals herself to Lilian. It is easy to feel the shift in tension and dynamic between Frances and Lilian in that moment. There is a scene in which Lilian removes an invisible stake from Frances heart that is startling in its sincerity.

When the big bad black moment of the story comes, it comes as a surprise. One is so caught up in the moment that one feels as caught off guard as the characters in the scene. The tension between Lilian and Frances, the tension of the story itself ratchets up by degrees so infinitesimal that one feels weary by the end of the novel. There is no relief. The denouement of the story is so abrupt as to be nearly nonexistent. The reader already knows exactly what has happened. It’s exhausting, the waiting for the actual end of the story, which is set in the Old Bailey courthouse.

Final decision

Another well-done trip to the past in the UK by Waters. A bit on the long side, but characters and setting and story make the length an afterthought.

5P–Every reader of this author wanted it yesterday.

5Q–Hard to imagine it being better written.

Readalikes, courtesy of NoveList Plus


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Appeal Factors

Bittersweet, Suspenseful, Steamy, Compelling, Character-driven, Richly detailed

Book talk ideas

Meeting the Barbers p. 4

Unsettling talks with Mr. Barber p. 19, 30-32, 56-59

Mrs. Barber’s mid-morning bath p.25-28

Frances and Lilian walk in the park p.89-101

The Reveal p.119

Snakes and Ladders p. 134-155

The Removal of the stake p. 171

Book discussion questions

1) At 567 pages, this book is long. Did you feel the length in any way? If you could have made the story shorter, what would you have cut out?

2) The Paying Guests covers about seven months in the lives of the Wrays and the Barbers. Did any part stick out to you as particularly memorable?

3) Lilian and Frances speak quite harshly to one another all through part three, each trying desperately not to blame the other for the circumstances. Imagine it is six months after the end of the novel. Are they still together?

4) Do you think Mrs. Wray figured out the whole story, parts of it, or none of it? What do you make of her statement that Lilian took advantage of Frances?

Clues to the Future

Lesbians, post war London, courtroom drama, Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests, Lilian Barber, Frances Wray, Leonard Barber, historical fiction, lodgers, widows, boardinghouses, the Old Bailey

Awards and Lists

New York Times Bestseller

Indie Bestseller

UK Sunday Times Bestseller

2014 Kirkus Prize shortlist

Links to the Author, Interviews, and Reviews

Author website:

Interview with OUT Magazine

Interview with The Man Booker Prizes:

Starred Kirkus Review:

Wall Street Journal Review:

Washington Post Review:

The New York Times Sunday Book Review:


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