“Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response. You know that, don’t you?”

payingguestsTightly plotted and superbly written, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests gave the Brown Baggers much to discuss. Perhaps not surprising for a novel with a relatively small cast, much of our talk concerned the two main characters, Frances and Lilian. Frances, with her strong sense of duty along with a suffragette background, was an excellent emblem of the changing times: respectable, but with a rebellious streak. It was more difficult for us to pin down Lilian’s true nature. Many felt that she could be naive in some matters, while slyly self-aware in other ways. By the novel’s end, most readers hesitated to definitively categorize her as conniving, but we definitely felt she knew how to take advantage of certain situations.

Social class was also a recurring topic in the discussion. The group talked a lot about how the changing times and post-war economy started to cause distinct societal shifts, but how class lines still stayed relatively pronounced — often regardless of actual wealth. It was interesting to contrast this with our remarkably different ideas of social standing in modern America.

The Brown Baggers agreed that although the book was rather long, Waters was very skilled at slowly building a world around the characters that was hard for a reader leave behind. The only niggling complaint concerned the hard-to-believe notion that the accused murder suspect was eventually acquitted, even if did soothe our sense of justice. The group also differed in their interpretation of the ending and the future of the women’s relationship; far from being unsatisfactorily vague, the Brown Baggers agreed this was another mark of a skilled writer.

More Information:

Check out other works by Sarah Waters in the JMRL catalog.

Visit the author’s official website

Read a review from the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian.

Looking for a readalike? Try one of these titles or ask for a recommendation through JMRL’s What Do I Read Next? service.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Join the Brown Baggers on Thursday, February 18 at noon to discuss Ishmael Beah’s The Radiance of Tomorrow.


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