The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

It’s been more than a month since I’ve finished this book – I know, I’m terribly late with reviews: I blame it on university deadlines. The last mile is always the longest one … But I think I’ve also dreaded writing this review because, well, it wasn’t really my kind of book. Let’s see, shall we?

IMG_3934Title | The Paying Guests
Author | Sarah Waters
Published | 2015 (Virago)
Language | English
Pages | 608
Goodreads | ★★
Bookdepository | paperback editionIMG_3936Summary
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be. (Goodreads)IMG_4071First sentence:

The Barbers had said they would arrive by three

As you have probably guessed by the summary and if you know Sarah Waters and the other novels she has published, you might have already guessed that this novel stages a lesbian relationship between the ‘spinster daughter’ Frances and Lilian Barber. I didn’t really know anything about Waters when I started reading this one, but I also didn’t really mind the romance. I think I’ve never really read anything alike before, but I thought it was probably high time I did. Moreover, I liked the idea of post-war London and I thought that Waters’ intention to explore homosexual relationships in this time when it was not talked about very interesting. Because it was rarely talked about no or few historical sources are available, thus creating the perfect blank page for writers to write a fictional but historically credible story.IMG_4068I think it wasn’t so much the lack of historical credibility that made me not really enjoying the book – in fact, I think the historical scenery was pretty well done – but the lack of connection between me and the main characters. Although I read the first hundred pages or so very quickly, I was slowed down afterwards. I think it was because I could connect with Frances and Lilian at first, but when their relationship took off in the wrong direction they took all kinds of decisions that made me less sympathetic towards them both, and especially Lilian.

It’s just … nothing. It’s like a bad tooth that has to come out. Once I’ve done it, we can forget it. We can be together, just like you said.

It would be too much of a spoiler if I would explain were this quotation refers to, but if you’ve read or are going to read the novel, you’ll know what it is about. I just couldn’t understand why Frances or Lilian did the things they did, even when the (historical) circumstances are taken into consideration.IMG_4070Nevertheless, I think a book can be still good, even if you’re not really connecting with the main characters, but then the book has to be very well written. And that, alas, wasn’t the case with The Paying Guests.

They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg, growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.

Well, I think Waters writing is often everything except subtle. It might appeal to certain people, but it’s not to my taste.

… when I’m with Lilian I feel honest. I feel like a knot that’s been unpicked. Or as if all my angles have been rubbed smooth.

When I rated this book on Goodreads, I saw that this book by Waters was by far the one with the most diverse ratings. A lot of one and two stars and five stars and less in-between ratings. I eventually gave it two out of five stars because I didn’t enjoy it, except for the first and last fifty pages or so which means a mere 500 pages left me careless.

Well, I think I would still like to read some other novels by Waters. I heard that Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith are her most famous and celebrated ones, so I might pick one of them up. I hope I’ll enjoy them more than this one!


Have you read anything by Waters and could you recommend me any of her novels?


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