Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests is released today, and I am so happy. I’ve been living with this book since February.
Set in London after World War I, the “paying guests” in the title refer to Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple who rent rooms from Frances Wray and her mother. The book is told from Frances’s perspective as she takes on the head-of-household role, losing her brothers and father to the war and a heart attack, respectively. The Wrays find themselves near financial ruin after the war, and this is why they must take on tenants. Although “paying guests” sounds much more euphemistic and innocuous.
But the new living arrangement becomes far from harmless as the tenants become more acquainted and new relationships form.
It’s difficult for the Wrays to accept their new situation, dependent on income from lower-class couple. Frances is bothered by the necessary evil of taking on tenants from the start, and she finds herself constantly obsessing about them, thinking of little else while she performs all of the daily cooking and cleaning tasks once carried out by servants. And the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Barber becomes suspect to Frances, especially when she begins to become attracted to Mrs. Barber.
Obsession leads to lies, affairs, and murder. And since the figurative “smoking gun” appears so early in the book, the subsequent investigation and trial make this a gut-wrenching read, leaving the reader guessing who, if anyone, will crack and tell the truth.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead | 9781594633119 | September 16, 2014)