The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

“For was that all, she thought bleakly, that love ever was? Something that saved one from loneliness? A sort of insurance policy against not counting?”

I heard so many mixed reviews about this since its publication last year. Although the published reviews seemed overwhelmingly good, and many people really loved it – my friend who borrowed the library copy before me was thrilled that I would be reading it next, and we had an excited discussion about it by the photocopier this morning – others found it dull, repetitive, weak. I try to avoid reviews before reading or watching something, but it’s difficult to avoid casual opinions, especially when you follow as many book people on twitter as I do.

So I was intrigued, when I started reading it, to see what I would make of it. Certainly, it made short work of my two-hour bus ride home, avoiding engineering work – I was engrossed. Even with reading it only on my commute (except the half hour last night when I finished it on the sofa), I read it in a week and a half, keeping it open all the way up the escalators in the tube so that I could cram in a couple more pages.

I found it incredibly stressful. The repetition of the second half of the book, with its harrowing events and tangled web of lies, made me anxious – while I am sure it was intentional that we feel what Frances feels, I have enough anxiety of my own. But I was also worried that, after almost 600 pages, the ending would be unsatisfactory, which made me more anxious, and rightly – it didn’t live up to the effort I put into reading it. Some of the romantic scenes were painful, others rather two-dimensional, and the sex scenes, unfortunately, rather lifeless and unconvincing. I felt that it either needed to be a much shorter book, or a more detailed one: I had so many questions about Lillian and about Frances’ mother, but their characters were left almost unfinished. I felt that she’d dropped some threads along the way, having picked up too many to keep hold of.

But I enjoyed elements of it, too. It is always a pleasure to read a book set in my corner of south London – in this case, Camberwell and Walworth. I love crime novels, and spent a good chunk of my teenage years reading barely anything except Patricia Cornwell and Christopher Brookmyre, so this appealed to me very much in that sense. It made a refreshing change for the suspense to be wrapped up, not in whodunnit, as it were, but in what happened to them – something that I loved about The Fall, too. The references to Chrissy and Stevie – their quiet life together – were charming, despite Frances’ jealousy, and I would have liked to see more of them.

This is, by no means, my favourite Sarah Waters – that is a tie between Night Watch and Tipping The Velvet (I am a parody of myself), for different reasons. I hated Fingersmith, and some of the things that bothered me so much about it also came up here. I wanted to stop reading it, but I wanted to know what happened, and that was, to be honest, rather irritating. I didn’t not enjoy it, but I felt it left a lot to be desired. I hope her next is more my cup of tea.

Other categories that The Paying Guests fits into: a book with more than 500 pages, a book by a female author, a mystery or thriller, a book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet, a book a friend recommended, a book with a love triangle, a book that takes place in your hometown

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