The Paying Guests is also a finalist for the inaugural Kirkus Prize (winners to be announced October 23) and is an Indie Next and Library Reads pick. It's hit #8 on the Indie Bestseller List and debuted at #3 on the UK Sunday Times bestseller list. The regional US has been taken by storm as well, with The Paying Guests recently reaching #4 on the New England list, #8 on the Southern list, #13 on the Mountains and Plains, #7 on the Pacific NW, #7 on the Heartland, #6 for SoCal, #8 for NoCA, and #9 for New Atlantic.
So just how did The Paying Guests explode across the literary scene?
Part of its success has had to do with Riverhead's publishing team, which garnered extensive national coverage (see below) and completely repackaged Waters's five-book backlist to echo The Paying Guests's gorgeous cover. But, really, their efforts have only served to illuminate for the nation something anyone who reads Waters's books already knows: Sarah Waters is immensely talented and writes amazing, haunting, heart-stoppingly good novels.
Slate's review describes Waters's particular talent perfectly:
Her six novels, beginning with Tipping the Velvet in 1998, could be called historical fiction, but that doesn’t begin to capture their appeal. It is closer to say that she is creating pitch-perfect popular fiction of an earlier time, but swapping out its original moral engine for a sensibility that is distinctly queer and contemporary, as if retrofitting a classic car.
While Waters's previous books have taken place in Victorian- or 1940s-era England, The Paying Guests marks her first foray into the 1920s. It was a particularly rich and complex time in England, as Waters explains in her New York Times interview:
“It’s that shift, that moment of modernity," Ms. Waters said. "The impact of the First World War was to shake things up enormously, loosening up old mores, fashions and behaviors. The early ’20s were like the waist of an hourglass. Lots of things were hurtling toward it and squeezing through it and then hurtling out the other side.”
In The Paying Guests, as with all her books, Waters captures historical details so precisely it feels like you're living and breathing the 1920s the moment you open the book. Waters describes how she achieves this in a recent Out Magazine interview:
“Just as we’re sitting here, the way our clothes feel, the things we can hear, all the food we’re eating—we don’t notice because it’s just a part of the fabric of our lives,” she says. “You have to think about those things that are so much a part of the fabric of your characters’ lives that they cease to notice them, and yet try to convey them to a reader quietly.”
While a central plot point in The Paying Guests revolves around a crime, the book is about so much more. “I wanted to write a love story that’s complicated by a crime, not a crime story complicated by love,” Waters told Vogue in her recent interview.
It's smart choices like this, combined with her retrofitting talent, historical precision, and more that have contributed to a simply must-read book. For a taste, check out the Wall Street Journal excerpt.
And if, somehow, you still need convincing, here are only a portion of the glowing reviews:
"Some novels are so good, so gripping or shattering that they leave you uncertain whether you should have ever started them. You open The Paying Guests and immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Waters’s silken prose. Nothing jars. You relax. You turn more pages. You start turning them faster. Before long, you resemble Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest: You cannot choose but read. The book has you in thrall. You will follow Waters and her story anywhere. Yet when that story ends, you find yourself emotionally sucked dry, as much stunned as exhilarated by the power of art." --The Washington Post
“Will keep you sleepless for three nights straight and leave you grasping for another book that can sustain that high.” --Entertainment Weekly, "A" rating
“The Paying Guests is a knockout… As alert as Waters is to historical detail, she's also a superb storyteller with a gift for capturing the layered nuances of character and mood….Spellbinding…The Paying Guests is one of those big novels you hate to see end.” --NPR
"Perhaps Waters’s most impressive accomplishment is the authentic feel she achieves, that the telling—whether in its serious, exciting, comic or sexy passages—has no modern tinge. ..The story appears not merely to be about the novel’s time but to have been written by someone living in that time, thumping out the whole thing on a manual typewriter." --The New York Times Book Review
“[A] tour de force of precisely observed period detail and hidden passions.” --Wall Street Journal
“An exquisitely tuned exploration of class in post-Edwardian Britain—with really hot sex...Waters is a master of pacing, and her metaphor-laced prose is a delight...As life-and-death questions are answered, new ones come up, and until the last page, the reader will have no idea what’s going to happen. Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.” --Kirkus, starred review
“Dazzling. [Waters] can, it seems, do everything: the madness of love; the squalor of desire; the coexistence of devotion and annoyance; 'the tangle of it all'...At her greatest, Waters transcends genre...The Paying Guests is the apotheosis of her talent.” --The Financial Times
“Waters seems to revel in 19th and 20th century British history as a dolphin does in water: Her 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…Moving and delicately wrought.”--Los Angeles Times
“Waters turns to the 1920s and delivers what feels like three novels for the price of one…a meticulously observed comedy of awkward manners… a story of torrid, forbidden trysts conducted behind a facade of conventional feminine respectability…[and] a tense tale of crime, mystery and suspense that culminates in a nail-biting courtroom drama…Exceedingly difficult to put down, The Paying Guests should scratch the same big-novel itch that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch satisfied last year.” --Salon
“[A] delicious hothouse of a novel…There's palpable tension from page one, so buckle up and prepare for a wild ride--one that's under perfect authorial control…Somehow, Waters pulls off this improbable feat with fine-tuned prose that's by turns crisply cool and pressure-cooker hot. The Paying Guests channels the past via E.M. Forster, Dickens and Tolstoy, quickened with a dollop of contemporary Dennis Lehane noir…This is a fever dream of a novel—Waters' best—that will leave you all wrung out.” --USA Today
“[A] pulse-pounder of a novel that feels…personal and raw…even while it delivers the genre goods…Waters remains a master of her genre, the historical novel rewritten as a dissection of the individual conscience…Undeniably fascinating.” --The Chicago Tribune
“The new Sarah Waters novel, which finds the author at the height of her powers, weaves her characteristic threads of historical melodrama, lesbian romance, class tension, and sinister doings into a fabric of fictional delight that alternately has the reader flipping pages as quickly as possible, to find out what happens next, and hesitating to turn the page, for fear of what will happen next.” --Boston Globe
“If you haven’t already embraced the novels of Sarah Waters, now is the moment. Don’t think twice. Collect all six and devour them with the same feverish abandon of the lovers who can be found between their covers…[The Paying Guests] is no romance novel or mere thriller, but a well-wrought, closely observed drama of a tumultuous period in British history… Herein lies the deliciousness of this book, and the others Waters has written: As much as Frances longs to give her heart to someone who will cherish it, we can never be sure, when she opens the final door, whether she will find the lady or the gallows.” --St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“It's been a while since a book kept me up until 3:30 a.m., but The Paying Guests grabbed me and would not let me go until I turned page 566 and closed the cover with a sigh. The wonderfully melodramatic plot, the brilliant characterization of protagonist Frances Wray, the vivid depiction of the zeitgeist in post-WWI London--each of these elements was equally responsible for the kidnapping of this unsuspecting reader.” --Newsday
“A singular novel of psychological tension, emotional depth and historical detail.” --BookPage
“An absorbing character study [and] expertly paced and gripping psychological narrative...Readers of Water’s previous novels know that she brings historical eras to life with consummate skill, rendering authentic details into layered portraits of particular times and places...Breathtaking.” --Publishers Weekly, starred review
“So brilliantly unexpected, and so nerve-shreddingly tense, that it keeps the reader guessing until the very last paragraph.” --The Bookseller
“A beautiful and turbulent novel about the complexity, and often futility, of personal and social change…With The Paying Guests, Waters has not only crafted a vivid portrait of class dissolution in post-WWI London, but also a look at the achingly human need for a sense of purpose and, if we’re lucky, a little intimacy.” --AV Club