The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

by Joli
Published: Updated:

In January, the bookclub I belong to chose The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Here’s how I like to approach book club books: borrow or buy it without reading about it. There’s just something about diving into a book without knowing what to expect! I did, however, read some of the comments of praise on the back cover. One in particular stood out…

“The #1 book [of the year]…Several sleepless nights are guaranteed.” – Stephen King

Oh, bother. Sleepless nights due to terror? Not my cup of tea. (*NOTE: After writing this review, I realized that this quote was actually for another of Waters’s books. Sneaky, sneaky….d’oh.) Also intimidating is the sheer heft of this book. Having arrived at the library and found my pickup number on the shelf, my eyeballs popped out of head just a little. At 564 pages and hard cover, this is a beast of a book.

So, I started reading the thing ASAP. I was halfway through my first Margaret Atwood novel (and loving it), so I wanted to get a move on. After the first couple chapters, I thought hm alright, this is a little slow, but I’m really enjoying her writing style. It’s intelligent and just the right amount of descriptive, yet quick and easy to read. Oh, if only I had known what I was getting into.

By about page 200, I really wanted to abandon this book. It took a full 200 pages to identify that the main character, Frances, is lesbian, and that she and her “paying guest”, Lilian, were about to have an affair under Lilian’s husband’s nose. There are a couple important details to the arc of the story in there, but it’s way too much character development for me. 200 pages of awkward tea parties, a telling brush of a hand, a blossoming friendship…I was so bored.

Remember how I read that quote about the book by Stephen King? Yep, that’s pretty much the only thing that kept me going with this book – knowing that SOMETHING had to happen, at some point. (Yes, the quote that wasn’t actually about this book…sigh.) Little did I know, I would have to wait yet another 100 pages. Yep, there were 100 pages of affair before the part Stephen King was talking about: 100 pages of juicy, sweaty, passionate affair. I do have to say, I love the way Waters goes into just enough detail to really make the affair beautiful, without making this book X-rated.

In fact, the way she writes saved this book for me. Without it, I don’t think I could have completed it.

There are three parts of the story: pre-affair, affair, game-changer. Each part could have been about half the length, and this book would have been much more enjoyable for me. There were parts that just didn’t matter that much overall, and didn’t really need to be there.

In conclusion, my overall feeling about this book is that Waters’ writing style is strikingly beautiful, but her story arc was just much too slow. Having finished it, I also feel a little cheated by the ending. Did I really read all those pages, and get that in-depth with these characters’ lives, only to not know in the end how their relationship really works out? Yikes. Back to my Atwood novel I go, gladly.

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