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Publisher's Summary

From the best-selling author of The Little Stranger, an enthralling novel 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' 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' finest achievement yet.

©2014 Sarah Waters (P)2014 Penguin Audio

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I had to write my thoughts as a balance to all the rave reviews for this work. Those reviews are the reason I kept trying to get through 'The Paying Guests' In the end, it wasn't worth the time or the credit.

This is a slow, interior moral drama. It takes 8 hours to get to the pivotal conflict and the next five hours are all hand wringing.

I will say that Juliet Stevenson is phenomenal in her narration. But the plot was one dimensional, thin and plodding.

40 of 46 people found this review helpful

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Difference of Opinion

Because I am a klutz with crutches, I've had to "stay off that foot", so I've read enough print novels to blister my thumbs and listened to less audiobooks lately. Once I could navigate the 3 floors to my computer, I decided to review only a few of those novels, and that The Paying Guests would be first--with apologies to several GR friends that recommended the book to me. With multiple 5* ratings, an author that "has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction," as well as earned a 3-time Man Booker Shortlist seat, this one has a *triple-dog-dare-you* not to find the novel magical. Well; I didn't, and I take umbrage at novels that sell themselves as one thing, when they textualize something quite different.

This is not historical fiction, not, not, not. There is more feel for post WWI London in the summary than in the novel; there is no sense of the politics of 1920's London, the social atmosphere, the changing economics as Britain began its decline as a world power and women rose to a position of more social power. What Waters did was a trending tactic...take a timely social issue from today and place it in the context of another era in history. I did not say immerse it, because this *issue* sits atop 1920 London like a drop of oil on water. She did not blend in any facts or knowledge that expand on that London. The paying Guests is simply (and more accurately) a lesbian love affair. The lovers are dressed in costume and dropped in London -- there's your hx. Change the costumes...change the historical time...voila! another *historical* novel. The history, what little there is, is foggier than a November morning in London.

This is the third such novel I've read recently, where there is no accurate description, or mention in the summary of the actual content other than: *forbidden love* that will *disrupt* society and families, or in this case: "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' life - or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be." *-sigh-* Haven't we advanced enough socially to just call it what it is?! Just say it...lesbian love affair--or just love affair if you prefer. This is a lesbian love affair set in London sometime after WWI. The history, in the context of this book, seems irrelevant, or at least contrived.

Now, it is a different book to rate and would probably get a better review from me because I had a knowledgeable choice of what I was getting. But putting a fictional love affair in period piece costumes and calling it historical is a ruse and I slash points for that kind of tactic. Good grief, call it what it is and stop blindsiding readers with these tales of !shocking! forbidden love that aren't so shocking or forbidden. I understand such a love affair would be eyebrow raising in any period of history (including 2014 to some people), and if I want to read that, I expect to read that in the summary and make that choice.

So, buy the book if you want to read about a lesbian love affair set in London circa 1920. It is narrated superbly and is an interesting story of two women falling in love during some period is time when it was difficult... It is also an example of attempted sensationalism... (but not history). For a great historical novel I highly recommend Lovers at the Chameleon Club. Perhaps it was reading that superior novel of historical fiction that in comparison, made The Paying Guests seem so vacant.

74 of 88 people found this review helpful

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  • B.J.
  • Minneapolis, MN, United States
  • 11-19-14

Great pacing, as always, but ...

I unfairly thought I would be listening to the same kind of mind-bending book as "Fingersmith" - Waters' book with one of the most surprising plot twists of all time. (The subtitle for that one should be "Gotcha!") In this book, as in others, the author has a terrific way of establishing a kind of tautness that keeps you listening well past when you should have hit the stop button. But I kept waiting for the twist ... and waiting. No spoilers here. Just a warning: this is NOT Fingersmith II.

If you have an issue with gay relationships, perhaps you should pass on this and choose something else. It is front and center in this book - and in my mind, is treated with more importance in the storyline than anything else.

35 of 42 people found this review helpful

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  • D
  • 11-02-14

I Stuck With It Until the End Hoping For Something

Would you try another book from Sarah Waters and/or Juliet Stevenson?

Juliet Stevenson did a fine job with her reading. I am not so impressed with Sarah Waters writing.

Would you ever listen to anything by Sarah Waters again?

Not inless it got super great reviews AND I didn't find anything better to listen to.

Did the narration match the pace of the story?

Yes, as I said Juliet Stevenson did a great job with the narration.

What character would you cut from The Paying Guests?

I typically am not so annoyed or bored by a story as I was with this book. The story was predictable and whiny. There were mp real no surprises. The relationship between the main characters seemed to be the product of someone that wanted to write about such types of relationships in a period piece. It felt like a book that could possibly be assigned for a women's study class. That in itself wouldn't turn me off but it just wasn't good, I was bored. I am not offended by the relationship in the story just felt very forced.

Any additional comments?

I listened until the end, hoping that there would be an interesting twist but to no avail. I would not recommend this book.

25 of 30 people found this review helpful

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I found myself smiling at the strange juxtaposition of walking on a ferry (with all the various activities that go into loading a boat) and the narration of this book as I did so. It was comical because this book ought to be accompanied by a symphony playing while you listen to the exquisite writing that emerges as you put together the very unusual story. Sarah Waters has the gift of language combined with the ability to lay out a story in a way that pulls you in at every page.

And then there is Juliet Stevenson whom I consider the very best narrator at Audible. I think she might be able to read the phone book and I would listen -- but know this isn't the phone book so the combination is riveting. Not to be missed.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Cainaan
  • Brooklyn, New York, United States
  • 09-23-14


Would you listen to The Paying Guests again? Why?

Yes. Juliet Stevenson's narration was stunning, nuanced, dramatic, engrossing, and beautiful—lending even more weight to Sarah Waters' detailed and lovingly told story. The narrative itself, though slow at the beginning, grew in tension, until I was literally holding my breath to see what happens next.

What other book might you compare The Paying Guests to and why?

The Paying Guests reminded me a little of the atmosphere created by Peter Cameron in Coral Glynn, which also has terrific and taunt narration, in this case by Simon Prebble. If repression has a sound, both The Paying Guests and Coral Glynn have found it.

Which character – as performed by Juliet Stevenson – was your favorite?

I loved Stevenson's interpretation of Frances Wray—just the right amount of angst, desire and repression, but also goodness and self awareness.

If you could rename The Paying Guests, what would you call it?

I wouldn't do that. The title is perfect.

Any additional comments?

Going forward, I want all of my books to be read by Juliet Stevenson.

31 of 39 people found this review helpful

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Great Historical Fiction!!

I should start by saying that this is my first Sara Waters novel even thought I have some of her books in my to-be-read list for years now. I admit that I enjoy The Paying Guests so much that I at times I forced myself to slow down and curbed my impulse to read it fast.
It's the kind of book that has everything I look for in a historical novel, well developed characters, fascinating time/period and a original story, almost painstakingly thorough in its details.

Because I listened and read the novel at the same time, it was quite a absorbing experience. The audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who did an amazing job at delivering the voices of so many characters but more than that allowed me to be transported to London in the early 1920's with the clouds of the First Word War still hanging on everybody's memories, casting a big shadow on its citizens who are still unable to move on after living through this most horrific event. I have listened to many audiobooks by many different narrators and I can say that this is one of the best performances I have listened to in a long time.

Sarah Waters is a wonderful storyteller and I love how with her detail descriptions of ordinary lives, you experienced first hand how this war has changed the very fabric of society and how it must have felt to live in London during this time. There's a working class (the so-called "clerk class"), that is emerging as well as women that are pushing their boundaries, demanding ever more rights, feeling more entitled to do so, after being left behind by a whole generation of men that was sent to fight a war that to many, was unnecessary and unjustified.

I enjoy the main characters, Frances and Lily, their relationship felt authentic in the slow way it developed, with all the intensity and passion of romance a its outset, followed by the angst, guilt and shame that comes as the consequence of being unfaithful.
As many has described before me, the novel is divided in 3 parts:

1st part- Introduces us to Frances and her Mon, the downfall of their family social status forcing them to take "paying guests", The Barbers, Leonard and Lillian.

2nd part- Develops the friendship (and later on the romantic relationship) between Frances and Lilly.

3rd part- Don't want to give too much here, but basically the books become more of a Legal thriller following a big development.

I really liked all 3 parts of the book, although at times it felt repetitive and it dragged a little too much for me.

But in general, I really recommend this excellent historical novel. I can see why Sarah Waters is a favorite author to so many, her gift is in using words as devices to develop interesting characters and create the atmosphere that takes you to that place and time.

Ultimately, Lillian and Frances are forced to confront moral and ethical questions and made decisions that would have permanent implications in the direction their lives would take, and we are right there with them feeling all the anxiety that comes with weighing those decisions and we can't help but wondered what we would do in a similar situation.

I look forward to enjoying more books by this author!

20 of 25 people found this review helpful

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  • Ilana
  • Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 09-23-14

Friendship Across the Class Divide

London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances's two brothers were killed in the war, her father's death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter debts to pay. They've had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they've decided to take on paying guests; the word "lodgers" will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They've arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber's quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn't exactly to Frances's liking. Frances is dismayed by all this. She has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-comanion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber's arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.

For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women's domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it's residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won't reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.

I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson's impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can't say I'm overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.

30 of 39 people found this review helpful

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No one needs to " warn " you about gay content

I love everything by Sarah Waters. She is a brilliant writer. I must say I am really unimpressed with the homophobic and heterosexist reviews I am seeing here...homophobia thinly veiled as literary criticism. People seriously suggesting they should have been warned this was a lesbian romance?? Or that there was sex in the book? This ain't a kid's scenes are pretty common in books for grown ups, people. If you have a problem with lesbian content, maybe don't read books by Sarah Waters. Don't read books by Radcliffe Hall or Jeanette Winterson. Don't read books by and about lesbians.... But if you can't handle lesbian content, you need to rely on your own research to avoid it. Don't expect authors and publishers to protect your sensibilities. They rarely warn me that I am going to encounter heterosexual content in the book I just downloaded. You can at least do the leg work on your own homophobia.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Pita
  • Miami
  • 09-22-14

Superior historical fiction/romance/suspense

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I was eagerly awaiting this offering by Sarah Waters, one of my favorite writers of literary/historical fiction. I enthusiastically recommend it to anybody that is willing to read at a leisurely pace, at least for the first half of the novel. Sara Waters makes beautiful use of language to fully develop her characters and construct her meticulously researched settings. This particular piece takes place in post World War I England. As it is typical of Waters, she has the ability to take the reader to the period of her choice and immerse the reader in it but this is not accomplished in 5 pages. The narrative picks up speed during the second half of the book.

Some of the themes that frequently appear in Water's other works are present here. The division of classes in Britain, the strong female characters who are struggling to grow and survive and the lesbian romance are all part of this books but, fear not, this work is in no way repetitious or formulaic. Crime and suspense are added here, and there are even courtroom scenes (which I really enjoyed). Waters works very well with the element of suspense. The reader gets involved not only in the courtroom drama but also in the human drama....although we know who did what from the beginning, we do not know how the court verdict will turn out or how the two main characters will evolve emotionally after the specific event. The end took me by surprise and I liked that (I had figured it out quite differently).

What did you like best about this story?

I was really taken by the fact that the two protagonist and their behavior and responses to certain events are unpredictable in a way that makes them very human. They may at times behave in ways that do not necessarily make the reader sympathize with them but they remain real. The characters in this book were indeed very alive.

Have you listened to any of Juliet Stevenson’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

I have listened to other narrations by Juliet Stevenson. She was superb in this book. She helped make each character and individual entity. I can sincerely say that this is one of the best narrations I have heard.

Any additional comments?

Towards the end of the book there is a scene in the courtroom, right before the verdict is read that is masterful. The writer does a wonderful job of building up the suspense. It is a relatively short thing but it proves without question that Sara Waters is one of the authors of literary fiction writing today.

22 of 29 people found this review helpful