Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

If it were possible to enjoy a book through sheer force of wanting to enjoy it, I would have loved The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I’ve only read one of her other books, Fingersmith, and it became an immediate favorite.

Back to The Paying Guests.
For a good week, I considered posting it as a So Bad, I Read It For You, because there were moments when I was desperate for a spoiler-laden summary. Plus, I thought it might be fun to be stubbornly contrary and free myself from the no-touch-spoilers tap dance. In the end though, The Paying Guests isn’t “so bad” and earns a regular review. While there are stylistic and character choices I dislike, I can see where they hold value. Waters’s prose is solid, even if her characters are flat, and the book is 150 pages too long.

Happily, it gets off to a good start. The reader is introduced to Frances Wray as Mr. and Mrs. Barber move into the home she shares with her mother. Frances is mourning her two brothers lost in the war and nursing a grudge against her father, who ruined the family’s finances before his death. Although the book touches on the changing role of women post-WWI, there’s no mention of Frances looking for work. Had there been, she would have made a much more compelling character—being stuck in the house keeps her so rigid! But of course she has to have lodgers: How else would she meet Mr. and Mrs. Barber if they didn’t live in a big, old house together?

Once the Barbers move in, Frances becomes uncomfortable in the shared home. They disturb her daily rhythms and she’s never quite prepared when she sees them. Living together forces a strange intimacy that she did not expect:

Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms—as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs. Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. (28)

(I love the “waddling shillings” bit.) The romance between Frances and Mrs. Barber is heavily foreshadowed from the beginning. The will-they/won’t-they dance occasionally falters while keeping Frances in a state of emotional limbo. Though the slow start of their relationship is realistic, the back-and-forth becomes tedious. It’s a mark of good writing that I, the reader, felt worn out by the same thing wearing out the narrator, but I also had the knowledge that they were going to get together. This is the worst kind of predictability: I wanted Waters to tell me what I already knew and start putting plot points on the board.

Until the two women start their relationship, there’s very little story/plot. It’s all about character building. Then they’re finally together and it’s…stagnant. Not that they don’t have mad sparks, it’s that the relationship can’t go anywhere due to its secretive nature. It’s a finite, claustrophobic thing. Then something REALLY BIG happens that I can’t tell you, because, spoilers. I had an inkling of what The Big Thing was going to be, but there was an added layer that I didn’t anticipate. Furthermore, it’s so intensely written that it would be shocking even if you knew what was going to happen.

As much as I slammed the predictability in the first part, the tedium of the second was more difficult to get through. At first, it was riveting: I hungrily awaited each new consequence from The Big Thing as the whole mess slowly moved to trial. I read that Waters researched a number of legal cases from the 1920s and she has worked her knowledge into the story well. The details are marvelously well-placed. The writing is just as smooth as the first part, so it’s not as though she shifts into a different tone to convey the trial.

Then a curious thing happens:

Once, she never would have thought it possible for a person to be bored by fear. She recalled the various terrors that had seized and shaken her since the thing had begun: the black panics, the dreads and uncertainties, the physical cavings-in. There hadn’t been a dull moment! But she was almost bored now, she realised. Bored to tears. Bored to the bone. Bored to death by those exacting lodgers, her own fright and cowardice. (520)

Frances’s exhaustion of the back-and-forth, the courtroom drama, the constant moments of potential discovery pushes her to boredom. And this is where I found myself as well: Bored. But how do I criticize this? Waters has created an experience that feels genuine. It doesn’t seem right to say, “I felt the narrator’s boredom too strongly,” because this only indicates that the boredom is well constructed.

Where I started to lose patience, and where I’d like to take off points, is that there are a number of red herrings that something will happen. There are lots of “wary” looks and insinuations; it’s implied that at least one character has a guess at what happened when The Big Thing went down. This adds to the fear of discovery and makes for a number of intense moments, but when it builds to nothing, these moments are cheapened.

So how do I rate this?

Overall: I can’t recommend it, which automatically puts it under a 3. Like I said, I was tempted to offer you a SBIRIFY post to save you time and “boredom”. But the writing is very good. The most interesting characters get the least amount of time; the narrator is the driest of the lot… oh, why is this so difficult? 2.8?

Translation: It’s the best written book out of all the books I’ve disliked. 😛
(I should scrap the whole review and just leave this line.)

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