The Paying Guests (Paperback)

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Staff Reviews

"World War I has left behind many casualties. Frances Wray and her mother are trying to get by without the men in the family, and anything to live on. They are forced to take in lodgers, much to the shock of the genteel neighborhood, and so refer to them as “paying guests”. The renters are a young married couple, Len and Lilian Barber. Frances is lonely, and so forms a friendship with Lilian, who is also alone as her husband works a great deal. This friendship turns into a passionate affair, which the two women are desperate to keep secret. One momentous night, an action occurs that cannot be undone. The events that ensue snowball into a suspenseful story with an unpredictable ending."

— Sharon Nagel

"A meticulously and beautifully constructed novel full of plot twists, character depth, and striking language, The Paying Guests is a compelling page-turner. Set in post-WWI England, the story unfolds with Frances Wrey and her widowed mother deciding to take in lodgers, or the more elegant euphemism ‘paying guests,’ as a source of income. These lodgers, the married couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, are young, modern, and intriguing, especially to the genteel and reserved Frances. The arcane nature of the Barber's marriage is explored, a most curious relationship between Frances and Lilian is cultivated, and a series of shocking secrets kept by all of the characters are unfurled to drive the highly original and imaginative plot of The Paying Guests. An amazingly crafted must-read!"

— Carly Lenz

October 2014 Indie Next List

“At the end of WWI, 26-year-old Frances and her mother find themselves in dire financial circumstances. Both of Frances' brothers died in the war, and now her father's death has left them in debt. Frances and her mother reconfigure their home in a gracious London neighborhood so that they can take in lodgers. From the moment Mr. and Mrs. Barber - the 'paying guests'- arrive, the young couple pulls Frances out of her staid routine, and before long sexual sparks are flying. Waters is a brilliant writer, a master of the hothouse atmosphere and the slow reveal, and her new novel is utterly absorbing.”
— Ellen Sandmeyer, Sandmeyer's Bookstore, Chicago, IL


The “volcanically sexy” (USA Today)   bestseller about a widow and her daughter who take a young couple into their home in 1920s London.
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.

About the Author

Sarah Waters is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Paying GuestsThe Little Stranger, The Night Watch, Fingersmith, Affinity, and Tipping the Velvet. She has three times been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, has twice been a finalist for the Orange Prize, and was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists, among other distinctions. Waters lives in London.

Praise For…

Named a Best or Notable Book of 2014 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, People, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR Fresh Air, Refinery 29, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Seattle Times, The Kansas City Star, The Millions, The Vancouver Sun, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Barnes & Noble, Hudson Booksellers, AARP, Kirkus Reviews, Pop Sugar, Publisher's Lunch, and BookPage

"Awesome, full-bodied novel. 'It's like she's saying, hey dudes, this is how you do it.' " Stephen King (via Twitter)

“Waters is an absolute master of pulse-pounding historical fiction.” –Entertainment Weekly

“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… [The Paying Guests] 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” —NPR

“A beautifully observed tale of murder, suspense, crumbling class distinctions and steamy lesbian love in post-Edwardian London. Like something Virginia Woolf might have written if she’d been racier” —People

“You open The Paying Guests and immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Sarah Waters’s silken prose... You cannot choose but read. The book has you in thrall. You will follow Waters and her story anywhere… A novel that initially seems as if it might have been written by E.M. Forster darkens into something by Dostoevsky or Patricia Highsmith. It also becomes unputdownable … the reader is in for a seriously heart-pounding roller-coaster ride.”—The Washington Post

“[Waters] masterfully weaves true crime, domestic life and romantic passion into one of the best novels of suspense since Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca… [The Paying Guests is] diabolically clever… with one of the hottest sex scenes ever to be set in a scullery.” Los Angeles Times

“Pitch perfect… powered by queer longing, defiant identity politics, and lusty, occasionally downright kinky sex” —Slate

“[A] tour de force of precisely observed period detail and hidden passions.”  Wall Street Journal

“It's been a while since a book kept me up until 3:30 a.m., but The Paying Guests grabbed me and would not let me go…The wonderfully melodramatic plot, the brilliant characterization of protagonist Frances Wray, the vivid depiction of the zeitgeist in post-WWI London -- each of these elements was equally responsible for the kidnapping of this unsuspecting reader, as masterminded by British novelist Sarah Waters, a three-time Booker Prize finalist.” Newsday

“A delicious hothouse of a novel…There's palpable tension from page one, so buckle up and prepare for a wild ride…The Paying Guests channels the past via E.M. Forster, Dickens and Tolstoy, quickened with a dollop of contemporary Dennis Lehane noir…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.” USA Today

“Waters turns to the 1920s and delivers what feels like three novels for the price of one…a meticulously observed comedy of awkward manners … a story of torrid, forbidden trysts conducted behind a facade of conventional feminine respectability…[and] a tense tale of crime, mystery and suspense that culminates in a nail-biting courtroom drama…Exceedingly difficult to put down, The Paying Guests should scratch the same big-novel itch that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch satisfied last year.” Salon

“If you haven’t already embraced the novels of Sarah Waters, now is the moment. Don’t think twice. Collect all six and devour them with the same feverish abandon of the lovers who can be found between their covers…[The Paying Guests]  is no romance novel or mere thriller, but a well-wrought, closely observed drama of a tumultuous period in British history… Herein lies the deliciousness of this book, and the others Waters has written: As much as Frances longs to give her heart to someone who will cherish it, we can never be sure, when she opens the final door, whether she will find the lady or the gallows.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The new Sarah Waters novel, which finds the author at the height of her powers, weaves her characteristic threads of historical melodrama, lesbian romance, class tension, and sinister doings into a fabric of fictional delight that alternately has the reader flipping pages as quickly as possible, to find out what happens next, and hesitating to turn the page, for fear of what will happen next.” —Boston Globe

“A gold mine of period detail, from class snobbery to sex – but with a timeless urgency when it comes to love.” Vogue

“A beautiful and turbulent novel about the complexity, and often futility, of personal and social change… 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.” —A.V. Club  (A- grade)

“Sarah Waters is so skillful that the reader (to borrow a simile from Lilian and Frances' love affair) softens in her hands like wax: It's impossible to think critically about technique or style or plot — or do anything but turn the next page. The Paying Guests makes for a transporting, even rapturous, reading experience.” —

“Waters is that rare literary stylist who can write a rip-roaring page-turner without sacrificing characterization or description…Even minor characters…are drawn with Dickensian flair… absorbing…you will want to sample her other works.” —Providence Journal 

"Waters always writes well about sex and her new novel is no exception: It's both hot and sensually beautiful, transcending cheap cliché." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"A great book captivates you — pulls you in as though you have fallen somewhere into the plot. Author Sarah Waters is a master of this premise — a heady task she proves in her latest historical novel, The Paying Guests. Waters takes readers on a journey through the past — we begin reading late at night, only to find ourselves eyes-wide-open, completing the book in the early dawn… pining for her next thriller.”  —The Weekender

“[A] pulse-pounder of a novel that feels…personal and raw…even while it delivers the genre goods…Waters remains a master of her genre, the historical novel rewritten as a dissection of the individual conscience… undeniably fascinating.” —The Chicago Tribune

“The Paying Guests is a richly sensual and suspenseful historical novel — sleek and streamlined” Columbus Dispatch

"Clear your calendar for this transfixing book: You’ll want no interruptions. The propulsive story focuses on a young woman, Frances, living with her widowed mother in struggling 1920s London. Needing money, they take in a pair of newlyweds, and the tension builds as Frances begins a passionate, secret affair with the wife that leads to a terrible crime."—AARP Bulletin 

“Lesbian sex, brutal murder and frantic cover-ups don’t tend to go hand in hand with subtle slow-burn storytelling. But that’s exactly the case in Sarah Waters’s captivating new novel, The Paying Guests…To say anything more would be a disservice to Waters’s masterful narrative. But suffice it to say that a terrible thing occurs, the women’s relationship is tested and you will be the crazy person staying up until 2 a.m. to see how it all comes together.”

“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.” —The Stranger

“Waters has always been attracted to sensationalist plots, and this novel progresses through at least two: a secret love affair between two women and a murder trial. But the novel is really about tiny changes in feeling, often evoked in gorgeous simile.” —The New Yorker

“One of the greatest modern novelists… As in every Waters novel you will be hooked within a page… 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… She can, it seems, do everything: the madness of love; the squalor of desire; the coexistence of devotion and annoyance; ‘the tangle of it all’… At her greatest, Waters transcends genre…The Paying Guests is the apotheosis of her talent…. I have tried and failed to find a single negative thing to say about it…Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep.” —The Financial Times

“[A] seductive thriller.” Vanity Fair

“Outstanding. [The Paying Guests] is the work of an artist at the height of her powers… How difficult, and how admirable, to pull off an ending that both sates you and leaves you chomping for more… You feel as if an actual life were unfolding before you—a life that happens to be far more thrilling than most.” —Pop Matters

“Shocking, no matter what generation you belong to.” —Marie Claire

“Perfectly transporting.” —Gawker

“Ms. Waters’ prose is…effortless to read…[A]  beautifully evoked story, rich with period detail.”  —The Economist

“An entirely believable piece of social commentary that nevertheless expertly undermines the damning, short-sighted, and narrow-minded strictures of the period it sets out to elucidate.” —The Daily Beast

“The awkwardness of sharing a house with strangers jumps off the page. You hear every creak in the floor and you sense how very crowded the rooms suddenly feel — and that something terrible is about to happen… Waters’ writing is a pleasure”Seattle Times

Hard to put down. It has the pacing of a thriller, and the atmosphere, period setting and class-consciousness of truly informed historical fiction.” —Bay Area Reporter

“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….You can practically taste the tension in the lovely old house... [a] heart-crushing…utterly engrossing tale.” Toronto Star

“Waters is one of fiction’s rock stars…[and] The Paying Guests is, quite literally, a virtuoso performance.” Harpers Bazaar (UK)

“Raunchy, romantic and thoroughly entertaining. Another triumph for Sarah Waters, [The Paying Guests] is unputdownable.” The Express

“Impressive and pleasurable… Waters sets her tale in the time effortlessly… A lot of work must have gone into writing this novel but it is no labor at all to devour” Lionel Shriver, The New Statesman

“A masterpiece of social unease… so compellingly readable, that the temptation to finish the 500-odd pages of Waters’s novel at a sitting is powerful… a virtuoso feat of storytelling” — London Evening Standard

“Waters has become a virtuoso historical novelist… a page-turning melodrama and a fascinating portrait of London on the verge of great change.” The Guardian

“This is perfect territory for Sarah Waters…[and] the sex is blazingly described.” —The Spectator

“Always superb at suspense, Waters…draws you into a narrative that, while remaining agonizingly credible, is a master-feat of twists and shifts… you can hardly turn the pages fast enough.” The Times (UK)

“Waters excels at presenting the raw interiority of a quietly heroic woman, slightly too ahead of her time… 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.” The Independent

“Fans of Sarah Waters’ previous novels know she is a gifted storyteller with a way of bringing historical eras to life… With the swiftly shifting mores of postwar British society as a back­drop, [she] once again provides a singular novel of psychological tension, emotional depth and his­torical detail.” —BookPage

“An absorbing and richly satisfying historical novel…[that] seduces the reader… The Paying Guests should establish Waters as one of Britain's best contemporary storytellers.” — Shelf Awareness

“Waters’s page-turning prose conceals great subtlety. Acutely sensitive to social nuance, she keeps us constantly alert to the pain and passion churning under the ‘false, bright’ surface of gentility. From a novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker three times, this is a winner” —Intelligent Life

“Riveting, [Waters’] best yet…It will be an injustice if it doesn’t win one of the main literary prizes.” —The Daily Express (UK)

“Waters is acutely alive to the way domestic interiors can mirror psychological ones… 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.” —The Telegraph

“Once in a very long while comes a book that is so vivid and so powerful that the disconnect from normal time and living takes place once again. The Paying Guests is such a book. I found myself transported, yes, but also moved, shaken and disorientated by turns…[Waters’] eye and ear for detail are extraordinary. The reader does not so much read about the villa on Champion Hill as inhabit it…But The Paying Guests is no study of manners…It is grisly, graphic and utterly gripping…impeccably well written…rich in intelligence, and emotionally profound. In short, a superb accomplishment, and almost, one might say, something of a wonder.” —The Star (UK)

“A triumph: spellbinding, profound and almost problematically addictive… Waters is so powerful a narrator, so in command of her material as she twists, defies and confronts without using cheap tricks, that she could make us believe anything… Morally complex, atmospheric, romantic and psychologically deep, The Paying Guests is an astonishing achievement… a beautiful and brilliant work by a consummate storyteller” —Sunday Express

“Gripping… Sarah Waters is, quite simply, a marvelous writer…[with] complete mastery over her material.” —The Globe and Mail

“Marvelous… absorbing…[and] delicious” — National Post

“Far more than a tale of passion… The novel’s remarkable depth of field – from its class-ridden background to its individuals’ peccadilloes – is sharply portrayed by an author writing at her best. Waters’s 20-20 vision perceives the interior world of her characters with rare acuity in a prose style so smooth it pours down the page in a book to be prized.” —Scotland on Sunday

“Compelling and richly-written.” —Northern Echo

“The novel brilliantly evokes the shabby respectability and claustrophobic social demands of its post-war south London setting, and the conflicting emotions of its protagonists and star-crossed lovers” —Quadrapheme

“One of Waters's finest achievements lies in continuing to entice the reader through deft plotting, even as her characters grow arguably more human”—Literary Review (UK)

“It's easy to get so caught up in this quiet tale of suburban sapphic passion that you forget who's masterminding it. Waters is at her best when she sends the plot on dizzying twists, and what seems at first to be a novel about repressed desire soon spirals madly into murder, adultery and betrayal… an absorbing read, rich in period detail and complex characters.” —The List (UK)

“With the intricate plotting of Dickens and the gothic textures of the novels of the Bronte sisters, Waters blurs the lines of Victorian fiction by bringing the hidden sexual world into the light, reframing erotic secrets in marvels of pseudo-Victorian crafting… exquisite” —The Australian

"So brilliantly unexpected, and so nerve-shreddingly tense, that it keeps the reader guessing until the very last paragraph” —The Bookseller (UK)

“Will keep you turning the page to see just how tense things can get.” — LibraryReads

"Breathtaking." —Publishers Weekly, PW Picks Book of the Week

"An exquisitely tuned exploration of class in post-Edwardian Britain—with really hot sex…Tension is high from the first paragraph…Waters is a master of pacing, and her metaphor-laced prose is a delight…until the last page, the reader will have no idea what’s going to happen. Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“An absorbing character study [and] expertly paced and gripping psychological narrative…Readers of Water’s previous novels know that she brings historical eras to life with consummate skill, rendering authentic details into layered portraits of particular times and places…breathtaking” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“Moody and atmospheric, this latest from three-time Booker Prize finalist Waters (The Little Stranger) has a rich historical setting…[and] keeps you guessing until the very end” —Library Journal

Product Details
ISBN: 9781594633928
ISBN-10: 1594633924
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: September 8th, 2015
Pages: 592
Language: English