The Paying Guests

As she did in her Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Fingersmith, an absorbing and richly satisfying historical novel, Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet) has crafted a period domestic drama that mines class differences, then added an illicit love affair between two women and, midway through, recast it as a twist on a murder mystery.

Frances Wray, unmarried and with a reputation for being outspoken, lives with her widowed mother in their large house near London in Champion Hill, a neighborhood of large gardens and leafy trees. Her father's death some years earlier left them in debt, and her two brothers were killed in the war. She's forced to take in lodgers: the boisterous young Barbers, whose gaudy belongings now crowd the rooms across the landing from Frances's serene, elegant bedroom. While Leonard leaves every day for his job as an insurance clerk, Frances strikes up a friendship with his wife, Lilian. As the unhappiness of the Barbers' marriage gradually becomes clear, the two women grow closer and Frances, regretting a love she gave up years earlier at her mother's insistence, pursues and wins Lilian. They are happy in their clandestine affair, until their lives are transformed by a murder and its aftermath, which threatens everything they hold dear.

Frances has a rich interior life, and Waters delivers plenty of emotional tension along with the murder drama. The result is a novel that defies categorization as either commercial or literary fiction. A reinvention of the English period drama, The Paying Guests should establish Waters as one of Britain's best contemporary storytellers. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

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