Book review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

6 Jul

paying guestsIt is 1922, and in a hushed south London villa life is about to be transformed, as genteel widow Mrs Wray and her discontented daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, bring with them gramophone music, colour, fun – and dangerous desires. The most ordinary of lives, it seems, can explode into passion and drama . . . A love story that is also a crime story, this is vintage Sarah Waters.

I was delighted to be asked to be part of the Waterstones Book Club this summer and to review and discuss Sarah Waters’ latest novel, The Paying Guests. Having enjoyed Sarah’s previous novels, I was very much looking forward to this one and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed chatting to fellow bloggers about the book (I’ve linked their reviews at the end of this post so that you can see all of our thoughts).

The Paying Guests is written in three parts and there were three very distinct sections to the story. Part one sets the scene beautifully; the sense of time and place that Sarah Waters creates in her writing is wonderful. Reading The Paying Guests I felt like I was transported to 1920s post-war London. The world and characters depicted were as clear to me as if I was watching them on television and so caught up was I in this world that it was a bit of a disappointment to stop reading and come back to the modern world.

The Paying Guests is an evocative examination of the post-war world and its impact on individuals and wider society Frances and her mother have been forced to open up their home and take in lodgers to make ends meet and the book charts what happens when Lilian and Leonard Barber move in. I liked the way that the complex social structures and changes wrought by World War One were threaded through the novel and brought down to the level of individuals with the Barbers representing the upwardly mobile clerk class; Frances and her mother the traditional middle classes and I particularly enjoyed the contrasts with Lilian’s family.

There’s much talk of what is ‘done’ and a complex code of subtle social etiquette underlines  the relationships in the book. Having listened to my own gran and great aunts discuss similar in the past, the lives depicted felt completely believable and I admire Waters’ ability to present domestic life in the 1920s so vividly.  The story burns slowly as the two families work out how to live in their new spaces and I enjoyed reading as the relationships developed with secrets revealed. Waters builds the tensions brilliantly with a series of peaks and troughs and kept me guessing as a reader and I enjoyed the romance of this part of the novel.

Part two delves deeper into the relationships between the key characters and the novel swiftly moves to become a crime story with the final part focusing on the outcome of said crime and it’s repercussions. I’m not a huge fan of crime novels and I did find this part of the book more difficult to get my head around. Although there is a wonderful amount of detail as to the ins and outs of 1920s criminal investigations and court cases, it was the love story element that held my interest and I would have liked to have seen what would have happened to Lilian and Frances had the crime element not got in the way!

I really enjoyed discussing this book with Kariss, AliceSophie and Kara and would definitely recommend it to book groups as we found that we all had plenty to say about the characters and events depicted. The Waterstones Book Club edition comes with exclusive extra material including an interview with Saarah Waters and a great list of question prompts for book groups to discuss.


The Paying Guests is out now in paperback and ebook formats.

I’d like to thank Waterstones for providing me with a review copy of this novel.

Find out more about Sarah Waters and her novels at:

Read Alice’s review at:

Read Kaara’s review at:



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  1. Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters | ofBooks - 7th July 2015

    […] Shy, Strange, Manic. Twitter: @kariss_leigh Amanda: Book review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Twitter: @onemorepage Sophie: Reviewed the Book.Twitter:  @sophieRTB Kara: The Book Review: […]

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