In an effort to be a bit more social, and read and discover more new books, I thought, “hey, why not join more book clubs?” This was before I got fully immersed in bookstagram over at Instagram, so now I have quite a few books to read that, uh, require a lot of juggling. Eep.
The Paying Guests is the sixth novel by renowned Welsh author Sarah Waters. It is set in Camberwell, south London, in the year 1922. Central to the story is Frances Wray, old enough to be a spinster, who lives with her mother in their sizable family house that they can barely afford to keep in good condition due to extensive debts accumulated and left behind by her late father. They are purported to be comfortably middle class before this, and so in a desperate move to earn money, the Wrays take in paying guests (apparently the polite way to call lodgers), Leonard and Lilian Barber, a young married couple of the ‘clerk class’, who bring something other than money into the Wrays’ lives.
The Paying Guests was published in 2014 by Virago, and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.
This is the first Sarah Waters novel I have read. I have been aware of it since last year, as it was a book another book club (MVLBC) I am part of has read. I did not manage to read it then as I was away on holiday, although I heard from the ladies what they thought of it. It garnered less than stellar reviews from them, so I was not in great excitement when I learned this would be the book for another book club (LGBC) I wanted join.
I rarely drop a book when I am convinced I must read it — this is why I join book clubs so I am forced to read books out of my usual genre. It was not hard to get my teeth into The Paying Guests; the writing style is not at all difficult to read through, and the text was easy to understand. What was difficult was the subject: Sarah Waters is apparently known for writing lesbian protagonists, and (admittedly, to my shame) I found it uncomfortable reading about the intense romance between two women. On top of that, there was relationship cheating involved, and there is nothing more that makes my blood run cold than cheaters.
The biggest challenge and reason I nearly gave up on it was the length. I do not mind long novels, but bare me with me as I tell you why.
I was mildly spoiled by the ladies from MVLBC. I didn’t mind then; I didn’t think I would “need” to read it. So knowing the big plot twist, I keep on reading, waiting for the buildup, for things to get exciting. But dear lord, it took forever to get there! There were interesting bits — I liked reading about women trying to be independent and having a voice in society, other little period details about society in general, but it took more than a half the book before getting to the climax. And when it got there, it still went on and on…and on, plodding away, while I wished so badly it would just end.
This tome was thicker than my Bible! And yet it could’ve been shorter; I feel that it just dragged on seemingly forever before and after the climax. On top of work and other responsibilities, it took me two weeks to finish this, setting me back on my reading goals. I believe I am not a slow reader, but this was a book that I could just drop in and out of, and the only reason I picked it up again was because I felt I had to finish it. I wouldn’t mind if it was a really good book, but I honestly could not say it was. The only positive was that I could discuss it fully with lovely ladies at the LGBC, and majority were basically in agreement that while it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t a recommendable book either. Some of them did mention that previous novels by Sarah Waters were of a better quality than this one, although I honestly cannot find the enthusiasm to find out.
“I’m sorry you aren’t as brave as you thought you were. But don’t punish me because of it.”
– Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
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Have you read other novels by Sarah Waters? What did you think of this one?