Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

It’s 1922, and London is facing hard times in the wake of the war. Spinster Frances Wray has lost her father and both of her brothers, and she and her mother have had to say goodbye to their servants. Unable to pay their bills, they are forced to admit lodgers into their South London villa. In come a modern young couple of the clerk class, named Lilian and Leonard Barber. Although Frances is resentful, at first, about having to share her home with people of a lower class, she is soon unable to ignore the chemistry between herself and Lilian. The two women begin an illicit romance, and their secret leads to a dark moment that will forever change their lives.

I’ve never read Sarah Waters before, so I can’t comment on how The Paying Guests compares to her other books. However, it was quite different from what I was expecting. It felt… a bit more like a soap opera than I was expecting, with its lesbian affair and the “dark moment” that I don’t want to spoil. The way it all played out felt rather melodramatic. That said, it’s an extremely well written soap opera with some pleasantly unexpected qualities.

Frances’ disposition makes this novel really unique. It’s not often that you read about a gay woman who lives so freely during this time period. Before she met Lilian, she had a relationship with another woman, which nearly culminated in the two ladies living together. It was really interesting to see Frances so boldly reject the social mores of the time to follow her heart, pursuing relationships society would condemn her for. It was refreshing that she didn’t try to stifle her impulses for the sake of security. At the same time, though, she is very smart about the way she conducts herself. She IS concerned about appearances, so she doesn’t act blatantly, but more subtly and cautiously. It was interesting to read a book from a perspective that I think is often ignored historically.

The Paying Guests would make an excellent book club read. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a LOT to talk about, plot-wise. I think readers will have many different opinions about Frances and Lilian’s actions and the way they respond to the big twist. Groups will also enjoy discussing social roles of the time — the different classes and the ways social positions changed after the war, expectations for women, and how Frances subverts those expectations. I didn’t entirely love this novel, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I received a free copy of this book at BEA.


Ten Fall Books I Can’t Wait to Read

Happy Tuesday, booklings! Is it just me, or is this fall overwhelmingly awesome for new books? September has been absolutely bananas for big releases, but October and November have some exciting titles, as well. This week for Top Ten Tuesday, the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish ask bloggers to list the top ten books on our fall TBR lists. Take a peek at the books I’m most excited to read this fall!

10 Fall Books

1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Random House, 9/2. A new David Mitchell novel is a huge publishing event, and this book has been getting tons of amazing buzz. I’m still (very impatiently) waiting for my review copy to arrive, but I may just cave and buy a copy!

2. Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas. Hogarth, 9/9. This novel, about a man looking back on his teenage days as an Olympic calibre swimmer at an elite Australian school, got some really positive attention when it came out internationally. I was initially drawn to this book because of my own swimming background, but the positive reviews have made me even more excited.

3. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Doubleday, 9/16. A new Mitchell AND a new Atwood in the same month?! It doesn’t get much better than this. Atwood’s newest story collection is getting some excellent reviews, and I think I’m going to take a break from my current, somewhat flat, read to dive in.

4. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie. Harper Collins, 9/23. Christie’s debut puts the reader right in the center of one of the most momentous moments in history — the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. This novel follows young, ambitious scribe Peter Schoeffer, who becomes the apprentice to Johann Gutenberg as he develops his revolutionary method of bookmaking. Historical fiction with a bookish twist? Yes please.

5. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. Random House, 9/30. At 28 years old, Lena Dunham has written and directed an independent film called Tiny Furniture and received eight Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe Awards for Girls, the HBO show she created, writes, and stars in. In her book, she shares the lessons she has “learned” along her unusual road to success. Dunham is known for her fearlessness and honesty, and Not That Kind of Girl promises to be a captivating look into her mind. I love Girls and am very excited to read a book by a young woman who has achieved such remarkable success in a male-dominated industry.

6. Reunion by Hannah Pittard. Grand Central Publishing, 10/7. Five minutes before boarding a plane, a woman learns her estranged father has killed herself. Changing her destination, she reluctantly flies home for the funeral, where she is reunited with her numerous half-siblings and her father’s five former wives. I can’t resist a good family drama, and this one sounds excellent.

7. Falling from Horses by Molly Gloss. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 10/28. In 1938, a 19-year-old ranch hand sets out for Hollywood, where he hopes to become a stunt rider. On the long bus ride, he meets an outspoken, bookish young woman who dreams of making it as a movie writer. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that sees them through their tumultuous Hollywood days — and the rest of their lives. A ranch hand, a bookish heroine, and 1930s Hollywood seem like ingredients for a fantastic novel.

8. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. Dey Street Books, 10/28. Amy Poehler’s first book contains personal stories; funny tales of sex, love, friendship, and parenthood; and life advice. I LOVE memoirs by smart, successful, funny ladies (Hi Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling!), and as a Parks and Rec fan, I’m counting the days until this book comes out.

9. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. Hogarth, 10/28. A man of faith is called to the mission of a lifetime, which takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. As he teaches the local population the word of the Bible, he receives increasingly desperate letters from Bea, telling him of disasters on Earth that shake her faith. This sounds like a great book for fans of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

10. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson. Harper, 11/11. Johnson’s latest book takes an entertaining and informative look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they search for clues into the mysteries of the past, working in far-flung locations such as the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Machu Picchu. I think archaeology is fascinating and romantic, and I’m excited to learn more about it!

Book Review: Neverhome by Laird Hunt

“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.”

With the first line, Laird Hunt sets the tone for Neverhome, a novel about a woman named Constance who leaves behind her husband, disguises herself as a man, and joins the Union forces to fight in the Civil War. This novel isn’t quite what I was expecting, and at first, I was a bit underwhelmed. But as the weeks have passed, it has stuck with me in ways I didn’t expect.

Neverhome isn’t your traditional Civil War novel. You won’t come away from this book with greater knowledge of individual battles or the tradition of women disguising themselves as men to fight. You won’t learn much about the ins and outs of protecting a false identity or what the war was like for most soldiers. But what this novel does offer is really wonderful. This book subverts so many social norms of the time, and Constance’s story is told in beautiful, dreamy prose that nevertheless feels authentic to the time period.

As alluded to in the opening sentence, Constance’s marriage is not typical. She is the strong, bold person in her relationship, whereas her husband Batholomew is softer, more sensitive — qualities that weren’t valued in men in the 1860s. I loved seeing a relationship where the traditional gender roles are flipped this way. Their marriage is unique in other ways, too; they love each other deeply and have a much closer, passionate, and tender relationship than I would expect from many farming-class marriages of the time. This is just as much a love story as a war novel, and although I typically dislike reading about romance, I loved the way Hunt wrote their relationship.

As much as I admired Constance’s strength, it was easy to see where she got it from; as she reminisces about her deceased mother, we see an incredible role model. Constance was raised by a single mother, her father’s identity being somewhat questionable. And what a mother to be raised by! She belongs to the camp of fascinating, challenging, and memorable mothers in literature.

Although Neverhome wasn’t the book I was expecting it to be, my love for it has grown as it has marinated in my mind for the last few weeks. It’s a beautiful novel of an unconventional woman making her way in a dangerous world — and it has devastating ending that you won’t forget.

I received a free copy of this book at BEA.