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Fall Reads: Sarah Waters's "The Paying Guests"

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In one of the most physically immersive novels to come out in recent years, Welsh author Sarah Waters conjures the details of England in 1922 with complete conviction. She depicts a country still reeling from war, adjusting to the disappointments of peace. Her heroine, Frances Wray, is also adjusting—to her dead father’s debts—and she and her mother are forced to take in lodgers: a gaudy young couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber.

Frances, intelligent, wry and unmarried, observes the newcomers with misgivings but is soon attracted to Lilian, who returns her feelings with trepidation, then with abandon. Waters traces their growing bond with a craftsman’s patience—each gesture, each shade of emotion—and the result is as tormenting as if the reader herself were falling in love. A cataclysmic event propels the plot to its tension-filled conclusion, but it is the progress of Frances and Lilian’s relationship—through passion, suspicion and maturity—that ultimately makes The Paying Guests so sad, powerful and brimming with life.

The Paying Guests, published by Riverhead Books, comes out September 16.

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