The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Genre: Fiction / psychological thriller / historical fiction

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

Like so many books, I picked this one up hardly knowing the first thing about it. And that was, I think, a great way to approach this book. The “genre” descriptions for this book on Goodreads—with “historical fiction” far and away the most popular—are laughably inadequate for the ride that this book was. Of the popular labels listed, “romance” seems to be the most accurate label, but what a romance! Based on the reading experience I had, I would put it in the “psychological thriller/suspense” category, albeit of the literary, slow-burning kind.

The book opens with Frances and her mother, London ladies of a “good-class” who are nonetheless faltering in the years after WWI (the male children of the family having died in war, and the gentleman of the house deceased after squandering the fortune on failed speculations), waiting for the arrival of the “paying guests” of the title—the lodgers they are reduced to renting to in order to keep their house. A feeling of subtle tension pervades the first few chapters of the novel, and it’s not exactly clear why. This appealed to me straight off, as I love the Gothic genre, and this book had that atmosphere: the mysterious tension, the large house falling into disrepair, mentions of fire… As an introvert, too, the idea of sharing quarters so closely with people with whom one has a rather impersonal relationship lent an air of horror to the story.

This atmosphere had mostly evaporated around chapter 4, however…and following that was, to me, the most dull part of the book. The romance angle fell flat to me; I didn’t really get the attraction, it didn’t quite ring true to me–I didn’t feel it. The writing felt somewhat distant and unemotional to me, like the relationship was somewhat forced so that the rest of the book could happen. It regains its footing around the halfway mark, though in a different way, and becomes much more page-turney. The gothic atmosphere even returns later in the book: “But she had got to a point almost of madness now,” the book said, and, “Oh, almost?” I said to myself with a gleeful smile.

The writing was quite effective at producing the intended emotions in me—anxiety, tension, suspense, and even (purposeful) tedium and frustration. It kept me guessing right up to the the end. Overall this was a very fun and satisfying read. The only drawback was that it dragged in the early middle, and as the rest of the book is pretty great, I think that can be forgiven—especially because, even with that little lull, I am having a hard time believing this novel was actually over 550 pages long!

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