So I really enjoyed “The Little Stranger” and wanted to read more Sarah Waters books. I picked up “The Paying Guests” and found it hard to get into initially. Just like I did with “The Little Stranger.” However, Waters takes her time building up the story and you eventually get into the rhythm of the book. I really liked the main character, Frances Wray, and the setting of the story (1920s England) really works.
Frances Wray and her mother end up having to take in guests at their estate on Champion Hill. Though this is not the thing that those of the upper classes do, Frances’s mother has no choice after the death of her father and her brothers. Eventually Lillian and Leonard Barber end up moving in as lodgers or the so called paying guests in the title. The book is a slow burn at first with Lilian becoming friends with Frances and then they fall in love with each other.
Frances of course was raised to think that girls like her don’t go around falling in love with other women. Frances is in her twenties and already had one female lover (Christina) that she gave up. The book takes a sharp look at the class distinctions too between Frances and Lillian. I also thought “The Little Stranger” did a good job with showing how the world had changed the way the classes were seen after World War II, but there were still hints of snobbery of those who had to “work.” Since this book takes place in the 1920s, the distinct classes are still solidly in place.
I sympathized with Frances a lot while reading, because she’s in love with Lillian, and I honestly don’t think that Lillian was in love with her. Though at times I did feel for Lillian who was also raised girls/women don’t go around falling in love with each other. Lillian has a very real fear of being found out, and once again its’ the 1920s, I think women could still be locked up for things like this as being found to be abnormal.
I thought the secondary characters like Christina, Stevie, etc. were great. You have Frances getting a glimpse of the way her life could go and I felt sad for her. I honestly ended up like Frances mother in the end due to her just seeing the house as just bricks and mortar. After everything Frances and her mother had done to ensure that they kept the home, it was a bit ironic.
I really loved the writing and like Waters style. The flow was a little slow at first as I already said. I found myself having to force read til the 20 percent mark because I just didn’t find myself being engrossed by the book like I should have been. I honestly think that most of the book was slow and doesn’t pick up until we get towards the last 1/3 of the book. The book also changes tracks slightly though when a murder is thrown in. Once again I recalled similarities to “The Little Stranger” here and there, but with “The Paying Guests” we are given the ability to watch how courts operated in England back then with a court case happening at the Old Bailey.
‘What an unlucky house this has been for men, hasn’t it? Or unlucky for women, I suppose I ought to say. I know your brothers are at peace now.’
‘Well, don’t think about it now. We’ll sort it out, between us. It’s only a lot of bricks and mortar. Its heart stopped, Frances, years ago . . . You look tired again. This frightful business at the court! I wish you’d keep away from it. You really think it will end tomorrow?’
The book setting is the 1920s in Camberwell and Waters definitely makes the times come alive. I think it was a smart way to show the way the world has gone on since The Great War. We have a lot of men and boys who have died and many women who are left behind trying to pick up the pieces. When the war was over many women had a hard time with giving up the freedom they experienced while the men were gone. I think that was a pretty common experience for women in the U.S. too.
The ending was a surprise and I have to say that I thought it was a bit weak. I wanted to know more and don’t know if Waters was saying that Frances was being naive or what.