World War I is over, but Europe is disillusioned. Frances Wright’s family was once wealthy, but her father died and left Frances and her mother with his debts to settle. This has left Mrs and Miss Wright with no choice but to rent out part of their family home for extra income. It is an insult to have people of the “clerk class” in their home, but the money is desperately needed and the renters– a young couple called Leonard and Lillian Barber– seem quite nice. Frances feels drawn to the couple, but she does not expect to get tangled up in their strange drama, all the while dealing with her own past.
I am new to Sarah Waters, but she sounded like an author I would like. I wanted to start with one of her other books (Fingersmith, perhaps), but I had a difficult time finding a large hardback edition of any of her other novels besides The Paying Guests. I’m a picky buyer, what can I say? The Paying Guests has a pretty low Goodreads rating, but I did not let that deter me, thankfully. I really enjoyed the novel even though it really isn’t something I would think I would enjoy. I was drawn in by the promise of a mystery, but it is really more of a romance.
A lot of complaints from Goodreads members seem to be that The Paying Guests is too long or too slow. I would actually agree to an extent. It is a chunky book and the plot moves slowly for a while. There is a lot of focus on Frances’ inner thoughts. While I do think that at least 100 pages could have been trimmed out, I found the book hard to put down. This was actually a stressful read. I felt on the edge of my seat many times. There would be a build-up to something, that something would happen, and then something would go wrong for the characters I was rooting for. There was a quiet tension throughout the novel that I greatly enjoyed. The characters were complex and I was very invested in what happened to them all. I actually really liked the ups and downs of the romance! There were twists too! I went into the novel knowing very little and it paid off.
Though not quite a thriller, I was engrossed in the novel from start to finish. My only complaint is that the ending wasn’t quite satisfying to me. This felt like a novel that just kept building and building tension so much that the ending would never measure up. And for me, it didn’t. I really couldn’t say what I wanted to happen or how I would prefer it to end though. For that reason and for it being a touch too long, I gave it a solid four out of five stars.