Why 'The Paying Guests' by Sarah Walters draws critical acclaim

'The Paying Guests,' which centers on a mother and daughter forced to take in boarders after World War I, is becoming one of the best-reviewed novels of the fall.

'The Paying Guests' is by Sarah Waters.

The novel “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters is shaping up to one of the most acclaimed novels of the fall.

“Guests,” which was published on Sept. 16, centers on Frances Wray, an unmarried woman living with her mother in post-World War I London. Because of a lack of money, Frances and her mother are forced to have “paying guests” (a euphemism for boarders) and France soon finds her life changed by the arrival of married couple Leonard and Lilian Barber. Frances and Lilian begin a passionate affair.

Waters has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize and Amazon named “Guests” as one of its 10 best books of September. The book has attracted rave reviews as well, with NPR critic Julia Keller calling it “superb [and] bewitching." 

“Waters is a master of the slow build, of the gradual assemblage of tiny random moments that result in a life-altering love,” she wrote. “Waters is a consummate storyteller, and for the reader, each twist elicits a small, deeply pleasurable shock… My only quibble with The Paying Guests is its length… Otherwise, this is a magnificent creation.” 

New York Times critic Carol Anshaw wrote of the book, “Although Waters is definitely up to constructing a big, entertaining story, her strength seems to be in blueprinting social architecture in terms of its tiniest corners and angles… Perhaps Waters’s most impressive accomplishment is the authentic feel she achieves, that the telling… has no modern tinge.” 

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Hand of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “[Waters’] literary depictions of domestic life, manners, architecture, class structure, the weight of war and the volatility of love all appear as effortless as they are beautifully executed… she masterfully weaves true crime, domestic life and romantic passion into one of the best novels of suspense since Daphne du Maurier's ‘Rebecca,’” and Guardian critic Tracy Chevalier wrote of the book, “[Waters’] writing [is] so beautiful, precise and polished… Sarah Waters skillfully keeps you guessing to the end.”

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