The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

I may have mentioned once or twice that I freakin’ love Sarah Waters. I think she’s a brilliant novelist and an absolute master of the craft. If you’ve never read Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity or The Little Stranger, well… get on it. The last book of hers I read, The Night Watch, while not bad by any means, didn’t feel quite up to her standard. I’m happy to report that The Paying Guests, her newest work, is a fine addition to her oeuvre and a terrific good read. That said, it wasn’t entirely flawless. What are these flaws? Do they drag down the narrative enough to significantly mar the book? Read on to find out my thrilling opinions! Oh, the suspense!

Okay okay, start with the boring stuff. Couldn’t you be bothered to check out a plot synopsis on Wikipedia or something? No? I really have to type all this out? Fine, fine, fine. So, England after the first World War. There’s this big old house, in which live a mother and (adult) daughter named Francis. Francis is our main character, she takes care of the house. They don’t have enough money, so they have to rent out the upstairs rooms. The story concerns the young couple, Lillian and Leonard, who move in. Lillian and Francis eventually become quite close, first as friends, then as secret lovers. Leonard, however, has a few secrets of his own. The plot starts off quite cool, and stays that way for some time, with Francis slowly accepting and opening up to the new lodgers.

Eventually though, things begin to heat up, finally coming to a frightful boil which plunges Francis and Lillian into a dreadful and seemingly inescapable predicament. That happens about two thirds of the way through the book. I won’t say what happens, but I will say that it’s a big shift. Much like the last book I reviewed, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, this novel takes a sharp turn with a long ways to go. And, again like Gone Girl, this novel isn’t ever as good in the back half as it was up front. It’s a shame, but not a devastating one. The tension rises very slowly for a very long while, but after reaching that peak, it stays there so long that it just turns tedious.

The last half (or third, I guess) concerns a legal matter. We follow the case throughout the investigation, up the ascending levels of the English court system, through the trial and all the way to the sentencing. It’s interesting stuff, Water has – as always – clearly done her research. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t feel all that involving, since it’s so at odds with the central character of the story. As out of place as Francis feels going through the ordeal, it’s nothing compared to how out of place the reader feels observing it through her perspective. Everything that came before is tossed aside in a ruin, all the delicate construction and character work torn asunder. And, while that’s a fair enough outcome, I can’t help but suspect that Waters is only doing it because that’s what she decided that book was about and focused her research on. It feels forced, like it’s not the story the novel wants to be telling, but rather one it is forced to endure. Maybe a Fingersmith-esque shift in perspective would have livened things up. As it is, Francis really is a poor guide to the novel’s second half. Which is a shame.

But what about the first half of the novel? Well, it’s Waters doing what Waters does – and I don’t mean that as a slight. There’s nobody better at weaving an ominous yet enthralling romantic web for her characters to tangle themselves in. Francis and Lillian are both interesting and compelling, and I liked spending time with them. By the time I was done, however, I felt – much as they did – a great relief to have come to the end of the thing.

A good book, and I recommend it, but not the masterpiece for which I was hoping.

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