Tuesday, September 2, 2014
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
3.5 out of 5 stars -- Love. Drama. Crime.
Frances Wray and her widowed mother live in genteel poverty on Champion Hill -- it's just south of London and still considered a fashionable district in 1922. Unfortunately, Mr. Wray died with substantial debt and the two women are forced to acquire paying guests to sustain their quiet lives without hired help or funds for upkeep of the decaying house. The young, new renters, Leonard and Lilian Barber, take up residence in rooms on the upper floor and soon create a seismic shift in the lives of the homeowners. Frances, in particular, finds herself caught up in a sudden new passion as she watches the tenants, does the chores, and tries to maintain the sparsely furnished spaces where she and her mother languish. While Leonard is at work as an insurance clerk, Frances and Lilian forge a relationship that invariably leads to a crime, an unanticipated challenge, a moral dilemma, and a quandary with implications that mean the difference between being caught in a trap or gaining freedom.
I vacillated between a 3 and a 4 rating on this one and settled for 3.5 -- I haven't felt this ambiguous about a novel for quite some time. That said, the slow buildup and the storyline were enough to keep me coming back for more even as I was wishing that Waters would step up the pace of the narrative and move along, stop repeating herself, and get to the end a little faster. That's not to say that I found this tale suspenseful even though I think it is meant to be. It was more like having something continuously dangled nearby but out of reach almost to the point of frustration and annoyance. This was not a mystery, per se, as the reader knows exactly what happened but it takes a slow, infuriating and somewhat exasperating while to get to the climax. The resolution was absolutely fitting even as I was on tenterhooks as I continued reading even faster to see if the author would make that choice.
I've read a couple of this author's other books and always enjoy her unique stories and settings. I'd recommend this to fans of Sarah Waters and those who enjoy a bit of sinister with their afternoon tea.
Complimentary ARC received from publisher for review.