A Complex Narrative of Romance

Book Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters’ newest novel always makes people happy. I’ve read two of her books and enjoyed “Fingersmith” the most. But now I believe “The Paying Guests” may be my new favourite. Sarah Waters does an excellent job of capturing readers’ interest from the outset. Even though there isn’t much going on at the beginning of this novel, I was drawn in by the well-developed characters and how they feel trapped living together. I knew from her previous works that even if there isn’t much action at first, it’ll arrive later and be interesting!

Set in 1922, the story takes place in a stately mansion in south-east London, where spinster-like Frances Wray and her elderly mother eagerly anticipate the arrival of their lodgers, the Barbers. Faced with financial difficulties, Frances has transformed several rooms into rental apartments, seeing the respected Barbers as a lifeline in their hardships. The lack of staff and the ruin of the once-stately property highlight their difficult status, with neighbours referring to the lodgers as “paying guests,” alluding to the Wray family’s efforts to keep up appearances.

“The Paying Guests” is divided into three parts, each of which represents a different genre that is flawlessly intertwined: historical fiction, romance, and crime. The first chapter immerses readers in Waters’ beautifully created love tale between Frances and Lilian, which progresses gradually and realistically. Unlike the sudden romances common in fiction, their connection progresses from strangers to friends to lovers under the scrutiny of cultural conventions, providing depth and realism to the story.

The second part acts as a bridge between the romance and the criminal elements, with subtle changes in Frances and Lilian’s relationship until a horrific murder sets the setting for the third part: the riveting trial. While the murder trial lacks the passion of the original romance, it does give insight into the complexities of the 1920s London legal system. Despite minor pacing concerns, I enjoyed Waters’ expert weaving of genres and rigorous historical research make for an engaging read throughout.

Sarah Waters excels at expressing the complex dynamics of romance, delving into the shifting currents of desire and the ambiguities of love. As love flares and fades, Frances questions the genuineness of her sentiments, wondering whether they are really true. I find this combination as the author’s wonderful writing prowess. The dread of betrayal looms big in the context of cultural expectations and the secretive nature of same-sex relationships, adding layers of suspense to the story. Sarah Waters just aced here and I was drawn most into the story further.

As a reader, Frances’s desire for a normal life while battling unconventional impulses really struck a chord with me. It’s heartbreaking to see her struggle against societal constraints that deny her happiness. Sarah Waters paints a vivid picture of post-WWI London, drawing me into a world filled with romance, mystery, and societal pressures. Despite being in her twenties, Frances feels trapped in a cycle of caretaking for her mother and their crumbling home, haunted by past mistakes. When love unexpectedly resurfaces, it throws her life into disarray, and I found myself eagerly turning pages to see how she navigates the challenges ahead.

I hesitate to delve too deeply into specific parts of the story for fear of spoiling its intricate plot. In essence, readers like myself can look forward to an engaging journey filled with romance, mystery, and courtroom drama, all unfolding against the vibrant backdrop of Victorian London. “The Paying Guests” truly highlights Sarah Waters’ storytelling prowess, offering a narrative that’s both emotionally resonant and intricately woven.


Swapna Peri

Swapna Peri is a Freelance book reviewer, blogger, editor and narrator. She contributes reviews on Storizen Magazine, Evince Publishers, Literoma Publishers, BookSirens, Netgalley, The Rise Insight website, The Literature Time website, and The Asian Review, a Srilankan book reviews website. Her blog has been named in the "Best Indian Book Review Journalists and
Editors" list by Feedspot. (2020 - Present), named in "India's best literature blogs" list by Indian Top Blogs. (2020 - Present) and indexed by Blogarama. (2023 - Present).

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