VINTAGE BOOK REVIEW: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

The “volcanically sexy” (USA Today) bestseller about a widow and her daughter who take a young couple into their home in 1920s London.

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.

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. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, Sarah Waters has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction.

My Thoughts:

Oh, Sarah Waters, how I love thee! Let me count the ways …

A tender and erotic love story, a sumptuous historical novel of post-war London, a gripping psychological suspense thriller, a clever murder mystery, a riveting courtroom drama, an eviscerating examination of English class and gender hypocrisies, a heart-breaking story of a young woman struggling to do what is expected of her against her every instinct and inclination … The Paying Guests is all this and more.


Sarah Waters is, I think, the most brilliant writer of our times. Her books are grand and deep and strong and powerful, but the pace is so swift and silky-smooth the pages just fly past. I have read all of her books now, and adored them all, and now I hunger for more, more, more. I am just going to have to read them all again while I wait.


The Paying Guests takes place just after the end of the First World War. Frances lives with her mother in a house that is much too large for them now. Her father and brothers are dead, and they can no longer afford servants. Bills are mounting up.  So they decide to take in lodgers (though they call them by the more genteel name of ‘paying guests’).

The arrival of Leonard Barber and his wife Lilian shakes everything up. They are young, modern, a little vulgar. There are hints of tensions below the surface. Frances is fascinated despite herself. It is Lilian she is drawn to, and they slowly become friends.


It is impossible to describe any more of the plot without giving too much away. This is a story of slow burning suspense, and you must travel it step-by-step with Frances to truly feel the gradual inexorable tightening of the screw. Having finished it, I now want to read it all over again.

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Kate Forsyth
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