In the interests of full disclosure, I have to tell you right off that Sarah Waters is one of my favorite writers. Ever. I have never been disappointed once by any of her books, including her latest, The Paying Guests. So any and all reactions I give in this post might be construed as biased.
That said: I loved this book!!
The story is set in South London in 1922. Florence, a spinster at 26, lives with her mother in straitened circumstances in their once-posh house on Champion Hill. Florence’s father has died, and she lost both of her brothers in the Great War. In order to make ends meet, the two must take in “paying guests” (too posh a neighborhood to call them “lodgers,” you see). Enter Mr. and Mrs. Barber, a young couple of the rising clerk class.
As time goes by, a relationship develops between Frances and Mrs. Barber, which quickly turns romantic and passionate. They’re together in stolen moments, a sort of fantasy. And then it’s all shattered by an act of violence that leads the couple, and the story, down an entirely new path. (Spoiler alert: murder most foul!)
There’s something about Waters’ historical fiction that gives it such immediate reality. I’m not sure what her trick is, but she’s got a gift for seemingly effortless scene-setting and complete immersion and attention to detail without ever once coming across as dry. Maybe this talent is tied to her knack for characterization and creating character-driven narratives. There are some wonderfully steamy scenes here too, but never do they veer into ridiculous or purple territory. There’s always a touch of gallantry and romance to them.
There’s a leisurely pace to this novel, even when the crime drama aspect of the story begins. There was just the merest touch of suspense, but not a lot. The drama, just like the plotline, is completely character-driven. However, the law and order bits of the story touch again on that immediacy of the history–the tabloid rumors, press, and sordid details of the 1920’s seem quite familiar.
One thing I always like about Waters’ protagonists is that they’re all flawed. It makes them seem solid and real and human. Florence bears a lot of resemblance to Nan in Tipping the Velvet, Waters’ first novel. They’re both passionate, but there’s a hardness to them. They’re selfish and self-serving. They’re jerks sometimes, in all the little ways that we’re all jerks sometimes. But they’re so realistically rendered that you still want to read about them, and you understand the way they feel. Florence has her issues, but she’s not without redeeming qualities–her practicality, her tenacity, her loyalty, her passionate thinking. I enjoyed her as a protagonist very much, she’s varied and interesting.
This is a novel to luxuriate in, to give yourself over to and get immersed in the world Waters creates. It’s a great mix of historical, romance, steamy, and crime drama. As I might have mentioned earlier: I loved it! All of it! Want more!
You might want to venture into the realm of true crime for readalikes for this one. Waters suggests some nice ones in her afterword to The Paying Guests. Lucy Bland’s Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper seemed quite promising to me. If this time period fascinates you, there’s a great book about Britain between the wars called The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson.
If you’re determined to have some fiction, though, I do have a couple ideas. The first is for you to go on a Waters binge and read all of her other books. Personally, I’ve found that Sarah Waters is her own best readalike. For steaminess and characterization, go for Tipping the Velvet. For suspense and twists (and some bonus steaminess!), try Fingersmith (my personal favorite) or Affinity. If you would perhaps like a break from steamy, there’s the brilliant Gothic ghost story The Little Stranger.
With an author like Sarah Waters, it’s easier to suggest similar author readalikes than it is to pinpoint specific books. There’s so much to respond to in any of her novels, including The Paying Guests, that it’s difficult to think of a book that could deliver it all. If you enjoy the rich historical detail and the female characters, you could try books by Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl), Kate Morton (The House at Riverton) or Emma Donoghue (Slammerkin or Life Mask). Historical crime fans might enjoy Louis Bayard (Mr. Timothy or The Pale Blue Eye), Caleb Carr (The Alienist), or Anne Perry (the William Monk series). If it’s compelling suspense and twisty-turny plotting you like, you could try Jennifer McMahon (Don’t Breathe a Word or The Winter People) or Gillian Flynn (Dark Places). If sexual intrigue and women on trial is fascinating to you, you might also like My Notorious Life by Kate Manning, which is about an abortionist in 19th century New York City.