The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: Review

paying guests

Frances Wray and her mother fall on hard times after the Great War. Her father left the women in debt after his death. Although they live frugally, the bills aren’t getting paid. The only solution is to let out a part of their large house to a married couple of “the clerk class.” Things are awkward at first between the Wrays and their new tenants, the Barbers, but soon Frances warms to Lilian. She warms up to her a lot.

Thrown alone together for most of the day, Lilian and Frances become friends and eventually lovers. But there’s the little problem of Lilian being, oh you know, married and all that. Frances is all for them running away together, but will they do it?

If I could give Frances some advice, I’d tell her to NEVER GET IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMEONE ELSE’S RELATIONSHIP. It won’t end well. In fact, her friend Christina (what a wise person’s name) tells her the same thing. It’s too messy.

I have a lot of thoughts about Lilian and Frances. Frances was quite a bad ass during the war. She marched against the war and for suffrage. Then her brothers were killed during the fighting, and her father died and left them broke. Suddenly, Frances had the responsibility of taking care of her mother and the house. Her days were filled cleaning and cooking. She wasn’t even thirty and she’d given up. Lilian comes into her life with her problems and adds some drama to her days.

I didn’t like Lilian and I couldn’t figure out why until I’d finished reading the book. Lilian is flighty and weak. She’s the kind of person who needs someone else to solve her problems and take care of her. First that was Len, then it was Frances. She’s a woman who will forever be a girl. I didn’t like how Lilian burdened Frances with her problems and needed her to clean up her messes. Literally.

As for Frances, I wondered if she fell in love with Lilian simply because of proximity and boredom. She was so active in her younger days only to become a drudge later. She needed something to make her feel alive again. Lilian seemed like such a bad match for her. Christina with her tell-it-like-it-is attitude would’ve been better. Christina knows her so well, but that shipped sailed long ago. When she says that Frances is a mix of conventionality and impulsiveness, she hits the nail on the head. It’s that combination that leads her into trouble with Lilian. 

I tried to muster up some sympathy for Lilian. She was young when she married Len. Okay. She was forced into it as much as Len was. Sure. They are miserable together, so why keep going? It’s not like they are particularly religious. They don’t live in a small, judgey town where everyone would be in their business. I think they liked making each other unhappy. They’re both terrible people.

Being familiar with Sarah Water’s other books, I was expecting a Big Thing to happen. When it did, the events following the Big Thing were kind of a bummer. How could anything good follow that? As much as I enjoy Water’s writing, there were moments where I wanted the plot to hurry along. There were too many “Oh no! What are we going to do? Oh, let’s just wait it out” moments. The inactivity was boring.

I can’t say that The Paying Guests is my favorite of Sarah Waters. The whole thing hinges on my feelings for Lilian and what happens in the last third of the book. My expectations were high for this one and because of that it didn’t meet them. I’d put this one in the middle of the list.


  1. This sounds like it has a slow plot and that kind of book just isn't working for me these days.

    1. Yeah, it's pretty slow. It seems like it's about to pick up but slows down again halfway through.

  2. TOTES AGREE. I was frustrated with both of them a lot. I'd say this is above Affinity for me, but below everything else in the Sarah Waters Scale.

    1. I liked Affinity more than this one. I know everyone loved Tipping the Velvet but I wanted to shake the main character.

  3. I had the same thoughts. I was not a fan of this one. I thought the Lillian/Frances affair was a bit contrived (yes, I do think it was because of boredom), and I was seriously not thrilled with the direction their relationship took. I never got Frances. She was such a fighter and then became a virtual doormat. At least I can understand Lillian. I might not like her but I understand women like her. However, since the story is Lillian and Frances, and since I didn't care for either one of them, this was a total downer for me too.

  4. I liked this much better than you and Alice, I think, and it is because I had more sympathy for Lilian than y'all have. I might not have liked her personally if I met her in real life, but I could understand what Frances admired in her.

  5. I can wait for it to come out in softcover, then! As I have two others of hers still to read, I'll try them. I can't decide if this looks good, or if people are liking it because Sarah Waters wrote it, if that makes any sense. I've tried The Little Stranger and it was a little slow so I didn't get far into it. And yet people loved it. So I have hope I will be in the mood or find what's good about her, one day! Good review, Chris. I enjoyed it.


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