The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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But even before she’d got the cigarette lit, she closed her eyes, leaned back into her pillow–and suddenly she found herself in an unfamiliar house with crumbling walls. How had she got there? She had no idea. She knew only that she had to keep the place from collapsing. But the task was like torture. The moment she got one wall upright, the next would start to tilt; soon she was rushing from room to room, propping up sagging ceilings, hauling back the slithering treads of tumbling staircases. On and on she went, through all the hours of the night; on and on, without pause, staving off one impossible catastrophe after another. p. 383

The paying guests is a term for lodgers, those who come to rent a home from a landlord. But it’s an ironic term in this case, because Lilian and Leonard Barber will pay in many ways for coming to the home of Miss Wray and her mother. At first I suspected a story resembling Arsenic and Old Lace. “They’ll be poisoned,” I thought, “this unsuspecting couple coming to a perfectly presentable house.”

But there are many ways to be poisoned besides arsenic.

How about love as a deadly poison? Could we substitute the fallout of a scandalous love affair for a fatal draught?

Delicious tensions abound in this novel, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, lover and lover, police and the accused. There is an underlying assumption, that Mrs. Barber’s dalliance could only ever involve a male. How shocking in the 1920’s, how virtually unknown, the fact that lesbian relationship exist.

It wasn’t what I expected, to read of a love affair between two women. It wasn’t even something I enjoyed, compared to the shivers I got while reading The Little Stranger. But if a novel reflects the writer’s soul, it would be unfair to expect something different than a lesbian theme from Sarah Waters.

I wondered if the two women in The Paying Guests would destroy each other as the deed they committed in secret threatened to expose more than their romance. And while their story vacillated between clinging to each other and separating, between innocence and guilt, I compulsively turned the pages to learn of its conclusion.

For what does all of Miss Wray’s cleaning mean? The day in, day out tasks of polishing the floor on her hands and knees, drawing water from a rumbling heater for baths and clearing up, dusting knick-knacks in the parlour while her mother naps? She will be forever scrubbing, but never spotless.

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22 thoughts on “The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters”

  1. I liked The Little Stranger very much, but The Paying Guests seems to have divided people and I’m still undecided as to whether to read it or pass. Your commentary on the tensions is tempting me though…

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    1. While it is an interesting book, at 500 pages it is a commitment, one I’m not entirely sure I’d make again. (Especially when there is so much translated literature we’re hungry for!)

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    1. I have only read The Little Stranger (twice, I loved it!) and The Fingersmith (didn’t like very much at all). I have The Night Watch to open later on…thanks for liking the last sentence. I didn’t want to give too much away, only to leave the impression that there are some things we do which can never be erased.

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  2. I’m still very keen to read this. The Little Stranger seemed different from her earlier novels, but from what I’ve read, The Paying Guests goes back to her earlier style and focus – female relationships. Really lovely review.

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    1. I had hoped this would more closely resemble The Litte Stranger, and in terms of atmosphere it came close. But, there were nuances in The Little Stranger which were so fabulous when it came to portraying the haunted house, and I missed the suspense? mood? drama? in this one. Glad you liked the review!

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    1. I want to read The Night Watch, because I can’t say I unequivocally enjoyed everything by Waters that I’ve read so far. Of course, it’s hard when one has a favorite (such as I feel about The Little Stranger) to compare the others with it.

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  3. I loved The Little Stranger, but have yet to read any more Waters. I have this one on my TBR list and am actually looking forward to it now thanks to you 🙂

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  4. Sarah Waters is an auto-buy for me, but I have three books to read by her, including this one. I should really make an effort to catch-up with her this year.

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    1. Isn’t it great when you have an author which as an automatic purchase? I feel that way about Haruki Murakami, and I also felt that way about Madeleine L’Engle when she was still alive.

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    1. Oooh, now that you have such high remarks about The Night Watch I want to read that. This was good, but really, I wasn’t aware it had such a dominant lesbian theme. Not my favorite reading… 😉

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  5. Lady MacBeth and Arsenic and Old Lace references? You are on fire today. Your review helped me make sense of my reading of the book because I think the ending felt anti-climatic because I thought they would destroy each other.

    This is making me think of Anne Enright’s book, The Forgotten Waltz. It was about an affair which broke up two marriages. The narrator seemed to be trying to justify her decision when all evidence showed that they were terrible for each other. But she made her bed and wanted to stick by her decision, because of the sacrifices they had made.

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    1. I completely agree that the ending felt anti-climatic! I guess I wanted somebody to be guilty! I’ll have to be content with knowing that the women will never escape the knowledge of what they did. Perhaps like The Telltale Heart, that knowledge will burden them forever.

      I wondered throughout if Lily truly loved Frances, or if she was manipulating her for her own purposes. I think Waters wants to wrap it up as a genuine love, but I’ll always suspect Lily of harboring her own personal agenda.

      I don’t think they’ll be together for long. There are too many things against them: society, selfishness, sin (murder).

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