Stephan Lee
September 12, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Paying Guests

Current Status
In Season
Sarah Waters
Riverhead Hardcover
Historical Fiction

We gave it an A

The Paying Guests is a lot of book — and not only because it clocks in at almost 600 pages. What starts off as a keen examination of class in the post-Edwardian years following World War I (think Downton Abbey, season 4) morphs into a gripping, forbidden lesbian love affair until a violent incident transforms it into a fast-paced thriller and an eye-opening foray into an antiquated judicial system. It’s the sort of novel that will keep you sleepless for three nights straight and leave you grasping for another book that can sustain that high.

It’s 1922, and the war has claimed the lives of Frances Wray’s two brothers and father. She and her mother, saddled with an empty London mansion and a crushing amount of debt from bad investments, have been forced to take in lodgers — or, the polite term, ”paying guests” — to keep their heads above water. The tenants, Len and Lilian Barber, are from a lower but upwardly mobile class, and their curious, mismatched pairing becomes a point of fascination for Frances, dubbed a spinster at the age of 27. Waters depicts the stops and starts of the growing romance between Frances and Lilian with lovely, muscular language, which only heightens the delicious sense of dread when things take a sharp downward turn before the stunner of an ending.

Waters, author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, is more recognized and lauded in Britain, where she’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. But she deserves far more attention in this country for her perceptive storytelling, and The Paying Guests — a novel of manners as well as a novel of passion — should win her a mass American audience. A

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