**The Paying Guests

London townhouse

(photo: Zoe Rimmer, creative commons license)

By Sarah Waters, read by Juliet Stevenson. Usually I enjoy being read to, but this is a book that might have been a better experience in the print version. NPR’s Julia Keller called it a “bewitching” tale of a young woman who falls in love with a married person, with all the well-known probability of a bad ending which that act entails. It didn’t bewitch me, alas. (It didn’t help that some of the reviews I read contained significant spoilers.)

It’s 1922 London, and to make ends meet, Frances Wray and her mother must take in lodgers—“paying guests”—after the family’s father died and both sons were killed in the Great War, leaving the two women with little more than a big house. Their constant petty economies dampen Frances’s spirits, and the young couple of a slightly lower class that moves in upstairs alternately energizes and mystifies her.

Says Keller, “Waters is a master of the slow build,” and I would second that, so much so that it isn’t until the book is nearly half-over and after some dark foreshadowing that the story picks up any steam (and it does get tastefully steamy, never fear). Subsequently, the consequences of a dramatic act of desperation begins to suffocate Frances in significant moral dilemmas, but, ultimately, the story unravels too slowly its last third or so.

If I’d been reading this, rather than listening to it, I could have whipped past some of its more lugubrious and repetitive dialog, along the lines of “Oh, Frances, what will we do?” No doubt this is a matter of personal taste, but I would have preferred some more doing in the book’s 21.5 hours (576 pages) and a little less wondering about it.