There's no two ways about it. Sarah Waters delivers. She's an accomplished and deft storyteller and is skilled at taking her reader right into the heart of the story. Each book has a specific and well defined setting. I was initially drawn to her work by 'Fingersmith'; shades of Hogarth and Dickens cleverly woven into a convincing and compelling tale. Her Booker nominations are well deserved. Her writing is lively, her characters, plot and period are evocative. So I was keen to read her latest offering which considers a completely different period, post WWI London.
In The Paying Guests, the reader is immediately drawn in to the 1922 London setting. It's an era of faded elegance; Frances and her mother have fallen upon hard times. Father made some unwise investments, leaving his wife and daughter impoverished and the sons/ brothers died in the First World War. There are no servants, no men in the household and from the opening pages, the discomfort and sense of duty is almost palpable. To make ends meet, following the reluctant sale of household items, they are forced to take in the PGs of the title. The class division is immediately apparent. There's a new social order. Frances and her mother are no longer protected by class barriers and they're faced with the challenges of sharing both their lives and home with Lil and Len. They're 'clerk class'; a little coarse, but aspirational. Frances appears tight and constrained physically, mentally and emotionally. There's a sense of sadness and loss. In contrast, Lil personifies the new Flapper age with her shingle haircut and desire to embrace freedom, informality and a different lifestyle. Her husband Len is a cheeky chappy, confident and sensuous and full of innuendo. Add Frances' Bloomsbury friends to the mix; Bohemian and unconventional, they add a different but equally plausible layer to the story. There's a real sense of social history; home remedies,,attitudes, street weary war veterans each has a place. But one of the most compelling elements is the 'character' of the house in which most of the action takes place. It's a property which gains a real life; waxed or varnished floors, walls papered, varnished or distempered, and locus which serve to both confine and expand the action. Hallways and landings where people meet and half lives are glimpsed... It's fascinating.
This book is very much a story of two halves. I'm not saying more..! It's truly difficult to review this extraordinary tale without exposing plot detail. Suffice to say, I'm bowled over by the book. It held my attention well into the night and I finished it off earlier today. The plot is more complex than it first seems. In essence a love story, but with murder along the way and a convincing Old Bailey trial, it's an articulate compelling tale of love, loss and class divide. There's passion, pain and some truly moving passages. Vivid in characters, plot and dialogue, it's a skilful and well told tale filled with social observation and comment. I loved it.
on 9 February 2015
This isn't a bad novel by any stretch of the imagination, only perhaps we fundamentally aren't suited and therefore only hit it off slightly. Waters' is a wordsmith and her strength is her beautifully crafted images of the mundane, miniscule or the everyday. i found the visual landscape and action in this book incredibly vivid and believable, which made the book enjoyable. My issue is the length of the suspense coded into this story arc. After the key event, there's a very very long way to go before you reach the book's conclusion. It's like seeing a runaway train coming towards you, but from a really, really, REALLY long way a way. You kind of know what's going to happen, it feels inevitable, but you're going to have to wait a long time and the suspense just keeps on, and on, until you're pretty much exhausted and frankly your interest peaked a while back thanks very much.
on 18 January 2015
Well, I feel somewhat wrung out like an old dishcloth after finishing this book.
I'm in two minds slightly (several minds in fact) about it. Did I love it? Did I even like it? Did I just spend several torturous days pouring over the pages only to be punched in the solar plexus by the last few chapters? Was the ending perfect? Were the characters still likeable when all was said and done? Desperate and clinging, and often crazed with calamity as they were. Did I in fact grow to feel for them, hope for them, plan for them, only for them to let me down?
All of the above and more besides.
I can't fault the book on its wordiness, its atmosphere and depth. That's what you get with this author. I felt slightly oppressed by it in Affinity, it worked perfectly in Tipping the Velvet, and I especially cherished it in Fingersmith. This book drew me in the same, brought the characters to life, and had me reading until my eyes were raw in the hopes I could finish it, sit back and feel that everything, after all, would end up ok. Or some semblance of ok that I could live with at least.
I could live with this. It's not picture perfect. It's not all tied up in a neat bow and done with once you finish. I want to know what happens next. I need to know the rest of it, but that's not to say I wasn't satisfied with the ending; it just felt like I'd been drug there through so many bramble bushes and puddles of wet cement that I craved something more. Having said that, I felt the journey was worth it - though I do think that part 3 went on a little bit too long, with its aching need to keep me reading until I could barely stand the twisted anguish these two main characters found themselves in. It got a little maddening, but then I suppose that was the point.
But read on I did, and when I finally finished I instantly wanted to pick up another book that would toss me about so skilfully, leave me feeling both weary and contented at once, satisfied yet somewhat suspended and flailing about as I hoped for more to the story. Unfortunately, there are not many books that can evoke that kind of reaction in me, not many authors who get the balance right. And I'm fine reading the kinds of books that don't linger quite as much, or leave quite the impression, pull you in to the point you forget it's just a book and the characters aren't actually real. I thoroughly enjoy reading the frivolous books, the books that follow the same tried and tested patterns, hold the same basic stories, the same - mostly insubstantial - indulgences. They're like delicious snacks (and I do love snacks), but this book was a meal. I took a bite and couldn't stop eating, even when I was sure I was full and needed to take a breather I soon went right back to it, fork in hand
The Paying Guests will certainly live on in my stomach, and my head, for a while; the good and the bad. Though to be honest I can't find much at all in the way of bad thoughts. Not everything sat quite right with me with the book - the overly long third part, the bleakness of some of it, some unresolved things here and there that will prickle at me - but overall I can put it aside feeling like I read something that stands out from the crowd. A story that taunted and tested me, with characters that I came to care about even though they were sometimes undeniably in the wrong.
Well written characters have always been a big draw for me. Characters I can understand and empathise with, feel for, are what can make or break a book, and Frances had me right there with her every step of the way. I'm so glad the book was solely from her point of view, it felt much more intimate that way, much more compelling.
And the setting, so well structured, and detailed without being detached. I could picture every room, feel every room. It was as if I was right there scrubbing the floors alongside Frances. Sarah has such a skill with this (as far as I'm concerned), and it never fails to capture me. Emotions were tangible with these distinctive and developed characters, and the maddening inflexibility of the era came across perfectly.
There was a an overall tenseness to this book because of the era, and some scenes were fraught with uneasiness, possibility, and often danger. There are scenes that I can picture so easily, so well were they presented.
I know I'll reread this at some point in the future and enjoy once again the way the author draws you right into these lives, this plot, and the eventuality of it all. I'll embark on the journey with a surer step - knowing the destination, the outcome - hopefully avoiding the dishcloth feeling that the anxiety of the plot, and the not knowing, brought about. It's definitely a meal that needs to be savoured a second time.
I think I've convinced myself that I did in fact like it rather a lot after all.
on 31 August 2014
Sarah Water's long awaited new novel doesn't disappoint at all. This is a brilliantly written and very evocative story that in spite of being rich with domestic, geographical and socio-political detail, never becomes mired down in this and remains an utterly compelling story. Sarah Waters is a writer of great skill and this is one of her finest works.
on 9 September 2014
Absolutely loved it! I have read all Sarah Waters' novels and I think this is one of the best - I love how she takes you right into whatever era she is writing about - in this case the years just after the Great War and you can so easily feel what it must have been like then for her characters. The story starts off quite slowly but by the end I couldn't put it down and was completely absorbed in the plot. Utterly fabulous - reading books like this makes me feel really cheery because there is wonderful stuff out there to be read.
on 14 September 2014
I'm a huge Sarah Waters fan so I give this a poor rating with a heavy heart. As some other reviewers have pointed out, the novel just doesn't ever really take off. More than half of the novel is dedicated to building up of the lesbian affair, which not only reads like a mills and boon pastiche but also never really feels credible as the characterisation is underdeveloped - the idea if Frances and Lillian as a couple so in love just didn't ring true for me. When the novel finally does introduce the second storyline of "the crime", the remaining plot played out so straightforwardly and predictably I could hardly believe it was written by the author of Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.
Waters' strength as an author has, for me at least, always existed in her intricate storytelling and brilliant characterisation. This novel lacked both and was truly disappointing. I doubt this would have been publishable if written by a lesser known author.
on 16 January 2015
The writing saves this book. Overall it is quite dull. An unlikely lesbian affair which drags on awfully and then causes a terrible event that adds the nescessary interest that holds the reader to the end. But like all of Sarah Waters' books it is so beautifully written and put together that the end product is good. I just wanted that magic ingredient that made her earlier work so brilliant and not just good.
on 1 November 2014
I was absolutely bowled over by this book and have left it a week before reviewing to allow myself time to do it properly - and to read what others have thought. A week has indeed passed and I am still as impressed as when I finished reading the last sentence.
The slow first half has been mentioned by several reviewers but to me it was essential to the story overall and I enjoyed every stage of the book in equal measure. I was effortlessly transported to early 1920's London and Waters has a talent in making the reader see whatever period she is writing about as a "modern world" through the characters eyes as opposed to simply looking back in time.
Although it was soon pretty clear which path the first part of the story was heading I love how Waters hits the spot in relationships and describes the simmering tensions, anticipations, hopes and fears that most of us will have experienced from time to time. Her ability to bring these to life is one of her fortés. The chapter where two of the characters go to a party was a masterpiece in my opinion - a similar scene was in "The Little Stranger" - also extremely well portrayed and totally believable.
It is without doubt one of the most enjoyable novels that I have read for many a year. Normal situations that that gradually become anything but normal through subtle and sometimes not so subtle events which at times I found myself holding my head in suspense.
I appreciate that what presses my buttons does not necessarily work for others but for me it is my favourite Sarah Waters tale - which given how much I enjoyed "Fingersmith" is quite an achievement.
on 5 August 2015
I was in a quandary about how many stars to give this, but decided on 3 simply because of the quality of the writing and for the social change/history portrayed.
I really like Sarah Waters. I loved Fingersmith and really loved The Night Watch, so I was looking forward to this one. Alas, so many times recently I've been seeing a book as a treat and it's failed to live up to my - admittedly high - expectations - and this is one.
Starting with the positives though. Of course it was extremely well-written. It was about a subject I find fascinating, and one I've written a lot about myself - the effect of war on society, and women in particular. In this case, the Great War. It was set in an era of huge social upheaval and change and - most importantly to this story - grieving. There was, in Britain in the 1920s, a very strong feeling that the 'best' of men had been killed in the war, and amongst the middle- and upper-classes, a feeling that the apparent upsurge of the working class had been paid for by them - and was NOT a good thing. That the upper-classes in particular had lost a disproportionately large amount of men in the form of officers made them more resentful, made them more clan-like in their behaviour. All of this is reflected really well in this story, if at times somewhat a little heavy-handedly. I don't doubt that people like Frances's mother Mrs Wray and Mrs Playfair and even Frances's ex-lover Chrissie spoke of the 'clerk' class and their servants as they did in this book, but to modern-day readers, it's a bit - no, more than a bit - embarrassing. Which is an issue, I know - do you stick with historical accuracy and make your reader uncomfortable to the point of not enjoying the language, or do you tone it down? Waters chose the former, and I admire her for it, but I didn't enjoy it.
Grief is at the centre of this story. Frances has lost her brothers and her father (the latter, she's happy about). Everyone of her acquaintance has lost someone to the war. Frances and her mother have lost their lifestyle and their servants. Mrs Wray is mortified by the fact her daughter has to light fires, ashamed of the fact that they can no longer afford a servant. For this, she blames not her profligate husband, but the War. The War is blamed for all wrongs. The yearning to return to what she and her friends and social 'equals' remember as the golden years is strong.
Frances is an odd mixture, caught between the two worlds. She had the bravado to stand out against the war, the pointless killing and death, but now that it's over, her rebellious spirit is smothered. This is in part to do with the loss of her lover and the sacrifices she makes for her mother, but only part. And here's the main reason I didn't like the story - I seriously loathed Frances. Talk about a victim! She was a martyr to end all martyrs, a moaner to end all moaners. She thought she was stoic but she was really just playing at it. She was, I am very sorry to say, quite tedious - and as some other reviewers have commented too, not as three-dimensional as you'd expect from a writer as good as Waters.
Of the story, I haven't anything to add that others haven't already said. It was flat for a long period as we entered Frances's life and she began her love affair with Lillian, then something bizarre happens almost out of the blue that drives the second half of the book. For me, this thing was slightly farcical. I have to confess, there were times when I was reading after it happened, that I wondered if Waters was playing with us, having a laugh, that the book was actually completely ironic, darkly comic and that I'd simply missed the point. I don't think I'm right in this, ad I couldn't find anyone else who thought so, but still the question lingered - because really, I found the episode rather like something out of a Victorian melodrama. Was that the point? But if so, then the ending is inexplicable.
I didn't enjoy this. I admired it, and I respected it, but as a novel it didn't work for me. I really wish it had, because the subject matter is so fascinating. Women in the 1920s had a traumatic time in so many ways - fighting to keep the places they had taken while the men were at war; feeling guilty for wanting to do so; grieving; and at the same time, glimpsing a future so different from the past - they were unbelievably conflicted. But despite this, I simply couldn't empathise with either Frances or Lillian, and that's what ened my enjoyment of this book as a novel. Though I'm hoping this was a glitch, and I'll definitely be going back for more from this author.
on 1 September 2014
Sarah Waters is a great writer and here her normal fluency and spare powers of description are as absorbing as ever. I excitedly downloaded this on the day it was published as had loved most of her previous books.
But...I enjoyed it a great deal and looked forward to continued reading though perhaps not with the obsessive salivating I'd hoped for. Throughout I was waiting for the twist, the sudden reveal, the 'things not as they seem' moment which never came. Things were what they seemed. Reasonably compelling but never thrilling or heart stopping in the way of Fingersmith for example. And bit disappointed with the ending too though will say no more to avoid spoiling.
Might be a bit unfair with three stars - would prefer three and a half or three quarters. Good read but ultimately felt a bit short changed. Oh well.