Contemporary Novels · Historical Fiction · Novels Set in England · Uncategorized

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

 

paying guests

I consider Sarah Waters to be one of my favorite authors so of course I started reading The Paying Guests back when it was released last fall with much excitement. However, I didn’t finish it before I went to London and had to return it to the library before I left. While walking around Windsor after visiting the castle I saw a copy for sale in a bookshop and bought it with the idea of reading it on the plane home. Yet I didn’t finish it then either. Finally a few weeks ago I started it again and this time I was riveted. I couldn’t stop reading and finished the novel with that wonderful sense of satisfaction you feel after living in a truly wonderful story.

The book is set in London in 1922 when the aftermath of the war is still radiating through society. Frances Wray and her mother are left alone in a big, demanding house with little money and no servants. To make ends meet they take in ‘paying guests’, Len and Lily Barber, a young couple who come from a different world, a different class, a different social status.  Inevitable awkwardness and discomfort accompany their arrival to the Wray’s home, especially as Len is a bit slick and there is an odd undercurrent of bitterness in his relationship with Lily. As the weeks go by they all try to adjust to the strained situation and Waters brilliantly creates that feeling of unease for the reader that sits at the heart of all of her novels.

Frances and Lily are eventually drawn together – out of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction – and their relationship takes a dramatic and erotic path that leads to murder. The plot then turns from a simmering love story to a tense police investigation and courtroom drama that only made the novel more interesting and complex. Waters is so good at examining the shifting state of relationships when they’re put under pressure and how her characters react to tragedy and anxiety felt so right to me.

I love the domestic details in this book – the descriptions of the cleaning, the meals, the everyday chores that bring the novel to life and transport us into the post-war society that was so rapidly evolving. These details ground the novel in reality when the characters and the plot take unfamiliar paths and helps to ratchet up the suspense and sense of terror that would plague anyone involved in a forbidden romance or a murder investigation.

I wasn’t disappointed with this latest novel by Sarah Waters and it seems to be the book that will earn her the huge readership that she deserves. She is really gaining a following here in the States – I’ve had conversations with two different patrons this week at my library about how they can’t believe they just discovered her writing. One of the patrons was sad to learn that Waters doesn’t crank the novels out and there was a five year gap between The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for her next novel.

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Contemporary Novels · Historical Fiction · Suspense Fiction · Uncategorized

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Well, Sarah Waters has done it again. She’s completely hijacked my life with one of her engrossing, agonizing novels. I’ve previously read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger and loved them both so turned to Affinity with much anticipation. I bought a copy of it about a year ago and just couldn’t work up any interest in it at that time. When I picked it up last week during the midst of my reading slump I knew that it was the golden book that was going to break me out of the slump.

Margaret Prior is a mentally ill spinster who lives with her widowed mother in London during the 1870’s. In an effort to distract her from the depression that has overwhelmed her after the death of her father, a family friend suggests that she become a “lady visitor” at Millbank Prison. The role of the lady visitor is to inspire the prisoners to be better people by the example of their good breeding and good sense. Margaret immediately feels the hypocrisy of this effort yet continues to visit the prison when she becomes smitten with Selina Dawes, who is a spirit medium in prison for abusing a patron of her work. Selina is enchantingly beautiful with golden hair and the look of a renaissance painting. She seems to be a cut above the other prisoners and more refined and innocent than her fellow inmates. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with her, an obsession that leads to terrible decisions and feverish choices. Will Margaret risk her comfortable middle-class life to have the woman she loves?

Affinity oozes with dread. The novel is dark and dangerous and the sense of foreboding for the reader corresponds with the downward spiral of Margaret’s despair. I love when authors can match the reader’s feelings to the plot. I really liked Margaret. She is clearly intelligent and gifted, yet she is bored with her status in society. She so desperately does not want to be her mother’s companion for the remainder of her life. She is looking for passion, for beauty, for an experience that will lift her above the drudgery and routine of daily life. Selina provides this escape. Selina is mysterious, exotic and powerful and is maybe the more fascinating character because we never really know her. The novel is told through diary entries, Margaret’s interspersed with Selina’s daily jottings of her life before prison. Margaret is easy to sympathize with, Selina is not and she is also a bit frightening because of her ability to sway people’s impressions of her.

Despite its unhappy premise I adored this novel. I really do think Sarah Waters is a fabulous writer and she is, at the moment, my favorite.

Have you read Affinity or any other novels by Sarah Waters? What do you think of her books?