The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

77%

54 Critic Reviews

...as vivid and continuous dreams go, this is a beautifully imagined one. It speaks to history, to identity, and to the basic human desire to be seen not for what you appear to be, but for who you really are.
-Globe and Mail

Synopsis

The New York Times bestselling novel that has been called “a tour de force” (Wall Street Journal), “unputdownable” (The Washington Post), “a delicious hothouse of a novel” (USA Today), “effortless” (The Economist), “seductive” (Vanity Fair) and “pitch perfect” (Salon)
 
“Superb, bewitching…Forget about Fifty Shades of Grey; this novel is one of the most sensual you will ever read, and all without sacrificing either good taste or a "G" rating” – NPR
 
“One of the year’s most engrossing and suspenseful novels…a love affair, a shocking murder, and a flawless ending … Will keep you sleepless for three nights straight and leave you grasping for another book that can sustain that high.” — Entertainment Weekly (A rating)

“Volcanically sexy, sizzingly smart, plenty bloody and just plain irresistible." —USA Today (4 stars)


It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, Sarah Waters has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction, and here she has delivered again. A love story, a tension-filled crime story, and a beautifully atmospheric portrait of a fascinating time and place, The Paying Guests is Sarah Waters’s finest achievement yet.
 

About Sarah Waters

See more books from this Author
A native of Wales, Sarah Waters is the award-winning author of Affinity and Tipping the Velvet.
 
Published September 16, 2014 by Riverhead Books. 568 pages
Genres: History, Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Literature & Fiction, Gay & Lesbian, Romance. Fiction
Bestseller Status:
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Peak Rank on Oct 05 2014
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Weeks as Bestseller
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Critic reviews for The Paying Guests
All: 54 | Positive: 45 | Negative: 9

Kirkus

Excellent
on Jul 16 2014

An exquisitely tuned exploration of class in post-Edwardian Britain—with really hot sex...Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.

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Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Jun 16 2014

When Frances and Lily confront their radically altered existence, the narrative culminates in a breathtaking denouement. British writer Waters (The Little Stranger) deserves a large audience.

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NY Times

Good
Reviewed by Carol Anshaw on Sep 19 2014

Perhaps Waters’s most impressive accomplishment is the authentic feel she achieves, that the telling — whether in its serious, exciting, comic or sexy passages — has no modern tinge.

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Guardian

Good
Reviewed by LUCY SCHOLES on Jun 21 2015

what begins life as a sharply observed domestic set piece slowly morphs into a courtroom drama. Waters combines a gripping thriller with period detail evoked with a faultless fluidity.

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Guardian

Above average
Reviewed by Tracy Chevalier on Sep 06 2014

Twice in the last few pages I shouted aloud – though whether in joy or horror I will not tell you. Sarah Waters skilfully keeps you guessing to the end.

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Guardian

Below average
Reviewed by Rachel Cusk on Aug 15 2014

Waters's plain-spoken description of this relationship immediately begins to undermine the novel's integrity as a period piece: the sexual perspective is designed for the modern reader...and the novel's descent into melodrama as a murder is committed...turns this engaging literary endeavour into a tiresome soap opera.

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NY Journal of Books

Good
Reviewed by Janet Levine on Nov 03 2014

For about the last ten years British writing has been experiencing a remarkable renaissance in literary fiction. Long may this movement flourish. Sarah Waters stands among the leaders. And this is one reader who cannot wait for her next book.

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WSJ online

Good
Reviewed by Elizabeth Lowry on Sep 19 2014

The pressure that remorse and moral responsibility bring to bear on their love affair is unpacked with exquisite pathos, so that whether their relationship will survive at all remains uncertain until the very last paragraph. It is a finely tweaked conclusion to an unnerving novel in which, in the end, almost everyone pays.

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NPR

Good
Reviewed by Julia Keller on Sep 23 2014

...this is a magnificent creation, a book that doubles as a time machine, flinging us back not only to postwar London, but also to our own lost love affairs, the kind that left us breathless — and far too besotted to notice that we had somehow misplaced our moral compass.

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NPR

Good
Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan on Sep 23 2014

The Paying Guests is one of those big novels you hate to see end — especially since you sense the end might be a very nasty one, indeed.

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Star Tribune

Above average
Reviewed by Malcolm Forbes on Oct 18 2014

Despite its twists and turns, the climactic courtroom scene sags. Everywhere else the drama is taut. Another gripping and atmospheric triumph from one of Britain’s finest storytellers.

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Financial Times

Good
Reviewed by Charlotte Mendelson on Aug 22 2014

...The Paying Guests reminds us of every great novel we’ve gasped or winced at, or loudly urged the protagonists through, and it does not relent...There is too much here to convey in brief, or without revealing the switchback twists that make all Waters’ novels dazzling.

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Book Reporter

Excellent
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on Sep 19 2014

THE PAYING GUESTS grabbed me by the throat immediately and would not leave me alone until I had devoured every word. In other words, it is the very definition of a gripping page-turner.

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LA Times

Good
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand on Sep 18 2014

"I pay attention to women's history," Waters said in a recent interview. "To their secret history and lives." "The Paying Guests" illuminates these lives brilliantly and unforgettably.

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Globe and Mail

Good
Reviewed by Alison Pick on Sep 05 2014

...as vivid and continuous dreams go, this is a beautifully imagined one. It speaks to history, to identity, and to the basic human desire to be seen not for what you appear to be, but for who you really are.

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AV Club

Good
Reviewed by Kyle Fowle on Sep 15 2014

...with The Paying Guests, Waters has not only crafted a vivid portrait of class dissolution in post-WWI London, but also a look at the achingly human need for a sense of purpose and, if we’re lucky, a little intimacy.

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Toronto Star

Good
Reviewed by Nancy Wigston on Oct 24 2014

The superbly talented Sarah Waters — three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — leads her readers into hidden worlds, worlds few of us knew existed. And so it is with The Paying Guests.

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Entertainment Weekly

Good
Reviewed by Stephan Lee on Sep 12 2014

...she deserves far more attention in this country for her perceptive storytelling, and The Paying Guests — a novel of manners as well as a novel of passion — should win her a mass American audience.

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National Post arts

Good
Reviewed by S. Bear Bergman on Sep 05 2014

...I devoured it whole upon arrival and then re-read my favourite scenes several times more after that.

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The Washington Post

Excellent
Reviewed by Michael Dirda on Sep 10 2014

Some novels are so good, so gripping or shattering that they leave you uncertain whether you should have ever started them. You open “The Paying Guests” and immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Sarah Waters’s silken prose. Nothing jars. You relax. You turn more pages. You start turning them faster.

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The Independent

Below average
Reviewed by Arifa Akbar on Aug 21 2014

Perhaps Waters does not want to put on a fireworks display of plot surprises. She does give us a poignant love story which symbolically sees in the death of the old order, the death of the old-fashioned husband and maybe the birth of an era of love without secrets. Yet we find ourselves wishing for a few more fireworks all the same.

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The Telegraph

Good
Reviewed by Lucy Daniel on Aug 30 2014

I read the topsy turvey courtroom denouement with genuine wonder at the virtuosity of its unravelling, the emotional subtlety of its implications about how people linger in others. Such intelligence is indeed thrilling.

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The Boston Globe

Good
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz on Sep 13 2014

...at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that this not-so-brave new world may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.

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BookPage

Good
Reviewed by Lauren Bufferd on Sep 01 2014

With the swiftly shifting mores of postwar British society as a backdrop, Waters once again provides a singular novel of psychological tension, emotional depth and historical detail.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Good
Reviewed by Ellis Avery on Sep 26 2014

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work.

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Open Letters Monthly

Below average
Reviewed by Rohan Maitzen on Oct 07 2014

...Waters has shown she can layer her novels in such thought-provoking ways, The Paying Guests seems a bit thin. There wasn’t a dull moment in it, but in the end I was almost bored by it.

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USA Today

Good
Reviewed by Jocelyn McClurg on Sep 20 2014

This is a fever dream of a novel — Waters' best — that will leave you all wrung out. Perhaps, like Frances, in desperate need of a cigarette.

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Express

Above average
Reviewed by Hannah Britt on Aug 29 2014

The novel’s conclusion when it arrives is satisfying, if slightly predictable and the loose ends are nicely tied. A great rainy day read, The Paying Guests is raunchy, romantic and thoroughly entertaining.

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Express

Good
Reviewed by Joanna Briscoe on Aug 24 2014

The Paying Guests is a beautiful and brilliant work by a consummate storyteller. Sarah Waters is, quite simply, one of our greatest writers.

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Slate

Above average
Reviewed by Amanda Katz on Sep 10 2014

After 2009’s The Little Stranger—a classic haunted-house novel set in 1949 that actually contains less Sapphic tension than models like The Haunting of Hill House or Rebecca—the erotic charge of The Paying Guests marks something of a return to form.

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The Miami Herald

Good
Reviewed by Connie Ogle on Oct 02 2014

Waters expertly evokes doomed love, terror and regret as she examines just how far we’ll go for a chance at happiness.

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Journal Sentinel

Above average
Reviewed by Mike Fischer on Sep 12 2014

Having adeptly raised such questions, "The Paying Guests" seems unsure how to answer them. Perhaps such reticence — in Frances, Lilian and postwar England itself — is inevitable, in a novel poised between an old world dying away and a new one struggling to be born.

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The Big Story

Good
Reviewed by Kim Curtis on Sep 23 2014

In true Waters' style, "The Paying Guests" is filled with romance and sex, suspense and deceit. Her prose is as strong as ever. She brings her characters and her settings to remarkable life...

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The Coast

Good
Reviewed by Stephanie Jones on Oct 17 2014

With pitch-perfect dialogue and period detail, Waters delivers a melodrama that foreshadows a feminist future.

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Arts Fuse

Above average
Reviewed by Clea Simon on Sep 15 2014

In Waters’s reinterpretation, the wife’s lover is a woman, and the implications of the closeted lesbian affair play into the surprising resolution of the case. But while this book involves a criminal trial, most of its suspense is psychological...

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Lambda Literary

Excellent
Reviewed by Sara Rauch on Sep 14 2014

Waters is an ace storyteller and a remarkable re-builder of the past. The Paying Guests is a page-turner with a twisting plot, but it is also a psychologically intense examination of what it is like to live with a secret and grapple with consequences...

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For Books' Sake

Above average
Reviewed by REBECCA WINSON on Aug 26 2014

The Paying Guests isn’t perfect. The “vintage” elements of Waters are beginning to blur slightly into predictability and the last section loses some pacing. But it’s powerful, and Waters’ plunging of new depths in her characters’ relationships is a welcome refreshment...

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Reviewing the Evidence

Excellent
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein on Sep 01 2014

Sarah Waters has forged an admirable reputation as a writer of historical fiction; THE PAYING GUESTS is very likely the best of a string of remarkable novels. It is certainly the best book I've read in a long, long time.

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That's What She Read

Below average
Reviewed by Michelle on Sep 23 2014

When all is said and done, The Paying Guests is a disappointment. Readers who are fans of Ms. Waters’ previous novels will miss the little Gothic touches she typically adds to her stories. The amount of words and space devoted to microscopic examinations of Frances’ feelings and resentments stultifies the story...

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http://skrishnasbooks.com

Good
Reviewed by Swapna Krishna on Sep 17 2014

It’s meticulously crafted and beautifully written and is just delicious to read from beginning to end. If you enjoy long historical novels that are brimming with atmosphere, then you should absolutely pick up any of Sarah Waters’ novels immediately.

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Rhapsody in Books

Above average
Reviewed by rhapsodyinbooks on Sep 24 2014

n the second half of the novel the action takes a disturbing turn. The protagonists have a whole new reality with which to cope, and we readers must endure every twist and turn of their thinking. Yes, it’s masterfully done, but again, it’s done for too long. And I, for one, found the ending profoundly unsatisfying.

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Readings

Above average
Reviewed by Ruth Pirrett on Nov 06 2014

Do not be discouraged if the novel seems to be losing momentum around the halfway mark, as things do get a very thorough shake-up before long. Waters’s intricately weaved and suspense-filled plot ultimately makes for an engaging and satisfying read.

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https://www.bostonglobe.com

Good
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz on Sep 13 2014

...“The Paying Guests” offers more than love, sex, death, detectives, and Frances’s agonized ruminations thereupon (though, really, what more could you want?). It is also a piercing portrait of a character and time marked by the dramatic social transitions capped by the Great War.

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Lit Stack

Below average
Reviewed by Sharon Browning on Oct 07 2014

Once I became unconvinced about the emotional honesty of Frances’s character, then the book simply dragged for me. What might have been exquisite detail instead became slow and petty, even irritating.

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Literary Exploration

Above average
Reviewed by MICHAEL KITTO on Sep 17 2014

Somehow The Paying Guests was on track to being another great novel by Waters but for me, it fell a little short. Maybe someone new to Sarah Waters would enjoy this one more, as it gives a little tamer introduction to what this author does best.

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Vulpus Libris

Above average
on Sep 24 2014

...what Waters has given us, as well as being an involving, exciting novel of action and an intense portrayal of character, is an expert depiction of one facet of the decade.

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Shelf Love

Above average
Reviewed by Teresa on Sep 03 2014

Lots of fiction explores these kinds of stories, and Waters does it well here. But readers who are looking for her trademark twisty plots might come away disappointed.

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Bookmunch

Above average
on Sep 03 2014

Whilst the final third of proceedings doesn’t quite maintain the momentum of the novel’s opening (Frances becomes somewhat dour and a creeping sameness overtakes some of the ruminative passages), it remains a thoroughly satisfying, entertaining read.

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Estella's Revenge

Good
Reviewed by Andi on Sep 08 2014

...this is an enjoyable book, and you should definitely give it a go, especially if you're already accustomed to Waters's style.

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The Bowed Bookshelf

Good
Reviewed by Trish on Sep 30 2014

This was my first read of her fiction, and I admit surprise that she is so widely hailed by mainstream readers. Such a long book requires days of attention, and that darkness stays with one long after. Her roster of critical successes speaks to her talent.

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A Common Reader

Excellent
on Sep 11 2014

The book is a page turner in the best sense of the phrases. At times my involvement with the book was so great I had to put it down and go and do something else to clear my head and remind myself that the characters and events described were fictional creations!

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thevoiceofoma

Good
Reviewed by omasvoice on Oct 04 2014

The book is excellent. I would have given it 5 stars were it not for the bit of obvious deception in the general review about the plot driven tale centered around the unexpected love affair. While the ending was credible, the outcome may not be what the reader would think of as true justice.

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http://wamc.org

Good
Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan on Sep 23 2014

The Paying Guests is one of those big novels you hate to see end — especially since you sense the end might be a very nasty one, indeed.

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The Stranger

Good
Reviewed by Paul Constant on Sep 17 2014

The first three hundred pages of Guests belong to Charles Dickens, but the rest of the book reads like pure, uncut Patricia Highsmith. Waters brings the best of those disparate muses together and convinces them to dance to the tune of her beautiful music.

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Reader Rating for The Paying Guests
64%

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