The Paying Guests [Book Review]

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Rating : 2/5

Have you ever felt helpless and hopeless about a book, yet still hopeful for a turnaround? Confused? Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests falls into this category. I picked this book up because it was listed as one of the best fiction books ever. Really? This is the last I am ever going to trust a list. The back cover premise did sound interesting, I admit. It’s about a couple who move in as paying guests and their interaction with the house owners. Most importantly, this sentence, “a love story which is a crime story”, pulled my attention. Having read so many crime fiction over the years, I am at a stage to explore other genres, more like crime mixed with other genres? This seemed the perfect recipe. Was I wrong? Not entirely, but majorly.

Set in 1922, spinster Frances Wray lives with her mother and is solely responsible for managing and maintaining their massive house. With no certain income, they rent the upstairs rooms to a young couple- Lilian and Leonard. Frances is intrigued by the couples’ relationship. She gradually forms a growing interest in Lilian. They begin to spend a lot of time together, sharing intimate details of their life. Their relationship, which becomes more than just a friendship, draws rift between Lilian and Leonard. An argument among the three, consequently becoming physical, ending with Leonard’s death. Frances and Lilian covers it up, Frances doing most of the brain job. With the police arriving, do Frances and Lilian get away with murder? Or not?

The above might sound interesting, I would say very simple too. But this simple story rambles on for nearly 600 pages and that’s where I began to lose patience. I never warmed up to Frances and Lilian’s relationship, not that I am against these relationships. I somehow never got to like any of them, or felt sympathetic or empathetic towards them. I know, it’s not necessary for us to like the characters, yet, I feel it’s necessary. Confused again? This is a strange story. I feel strange writing this review, honestly. The pace of the story wasn’t bad. It smoothly shifted gears throughout. It must have been engaging enough, as I didn’t abandon it half way. But, I don’t know. I feel highly disappointed for some reason.

This book isn’t like the normal, fast-paced, racy crime story- I get that. This is more about characterization, the 1920s setting, the social problems then, etc. I quite enjoyed the beginning as well. It was written beautifully and took me in a journey. But after Frances and Lilian admit their feelings to each other, I felt it was going nowhere. The author took a good time to get to the crime story from the love story. I felt the narration became dull and there were too many thoughts description (like what one felt and thought) rather than some action. At the end, instead of feeling triumphant, I felt relieved that the book was over.

I understand writing such stories like these aren’t easy. To understand the year/age the story is set it, and to involve a love story between two females and how it was looked upon then and weaving them into a story is brave. I give that. I wish, the book was a little more shorter, perhaps?

If you like slow paced, character oriented, period story- this is the one to go for. Else, it’s not.

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