The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

Four stars, read in November 2014.

This book takes a lot of unexpected turns, particularly if it’s your first of Sarah Waters’ books (it was mine). I had the sense of a Downton Abbey-type situation when I picked it up, the story of the upper classes having to adjust to the postwar world, losing their servants, finally forced to the step of taking in lodgers—but calling them “paying guests,” because even the word “lodgers” is too coarse for them to bear. And then, based on the jacket blurb, I thought there might be an affair between Frances and Leonard, complicated by her friendship with Lilian, the unforgiving rules of “morality” at the time, etc. There are elements of some of those things—but this book is so much more than, and so different from, anything I was anticipating.

More than once, I was startled by the skill of the writing—the aptness of a metaphor or simile, the clear imagery, the moments described so perfectly that you know that’s exactly how it would have really happened. No weak descriptions of people “bouncing against each other like pork chops on a grill”—when Waters makes a comparison it works, it makes sense, and you can see exactly what she’s talking about. Really, the thing to say about her writing is that it’s brilliantly accurate. She writes the protagonist’s thoughts so realistically that even when I found them irritating or appalling, I never doubted that that’s what a real person would have thought in that moment. And she describes some beautiful moments, too; the language is lovely, often simple, but always perfectly appropriate.

This book is long. I first saw it mentioned when I took a reading personality quiz; after you get your result, you can scroll through to see what you scored in the other categories, and there’s a list of recommended books for each category. This book was recommended for “endurance readers”—but if you’re like me, it won’t take much endurance, because you’re going to want to pick it up every opportunity you get. Even with 500+ pages, I only spent a few days on it, because this is a book you just want to settle in with. I can’t wait to read more of Waters’s work.

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