Full disclosure: this is the first Sarah Waters book I've ever read. I also did not like it much. I therefore cannot compare how good (or bad) it is in relation to her previous books. All I know is that the entire time I was reading this book, I kept waiting for it to get good. It DID get good on a few occasions, but not enough to sustain my interest for 564 pages.
I put this book on the top of my TBR pile back in May at BEA (BookExpo America) when my friend and former coworker, ERM, kept raving about it. She told me that if I couldn't score an ARC at BEA, that I should write to my rep right away to request one. I dutifully did what she suggested and sometime in June received it in the mail. (My sales rep is great!) It was too big to lug on my summer vacation to Anguilla with me, and who are we kidding? I had my entire two weeks' worth of reading planned out ages ago and thus wouldn't get to it until my return.
So I picked it up with a certain eagerness and that surety that I was about to embark on the discovery of a new favorite author. Literary fiction? Check. British setting? Check. "Dickensian" used as a frequent adjective to describe her work? Check. Lady lovin'? Check, check and CHECK.
The premise is promising enough. Frances Wray and her mother live together in their family home after World War I. Frances's brother died in the war and her father died after mishandling their finances, so while they're not exactly destitute, it's clear that life cannot go on as it did before the war. In order to remain in the family home (estate is perhaps too grand a word, but it's not that far off, either), Frances and her mother must take in lodgers to make ends meet. Their social standing prevents them from talking about rent, so they refer to these lodgers as their "paying guests." Obviously. Thus the reader gets the first of many glimpses into these fallen upper-class characters whose happiness and sense of being cannot be separated from their need to keep up appearances.
Lillian and Leonard Barber have definitely moved up in the world when they take rooms with the Wrays. But something isn't quite right...Frances and Mrs Wray speculate about they perceive as the Barbers' unconventionality. While Frances finds Leonard "a menace," Mrs Wray casts aspersions on Lillian when Frances mentions how much she likes Lillian. Mrs Wray is suspicious of Frances's fondness for Lillian, and rightly so, for the reader soon learns that before the war, Frances was involved in a love affair that dare not speak its name.
Obviously Lillian and Frances are going to get together with this kind of set up, but they take their own sweet time about it. It's well past the 100-page mark, and perhaps closer to 150 by the time they acknowledge the electricity between them and act on it. In between the time the Barbers move in and Lillian and Frances get it on, it's boring. The writing is good, but it's not enough to really redeem the utter lack of plot. And frankly, from what I'd heard about Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, I thought there would be a lot more of the Lady Lovin'. Color me disappointed on that count.
Round about the 300-page mark, Something Big Happens: a man dies. But is it an accident or is it murder? It's gonna take another 200 pages for the lawmakers to find out, and the entire book during that 200 pages is boring. BOR-ING. A regular snooze fest. Lillian and Frances are so utterly insipid and uninteresting, and their actions are so incredibly stupid, that I could barely skim fast enough to get to the end. It was only because Many People I Trust were raving about this book that I stayed with it.
Suffice it to say that there's a moral dilemma of quite some size, that class issues and gender roles come in to play, and that the writing remains of high quality throughout. That being said, I still found it intolerable. The only characters I thought were interesting at all were Frances' ex-girlfriend and her new lover. Mrs Wray was a prejudiced old cow too concerned about what other people thought of her, and yes, she's a product of her time, but I couldn't find a single, redeemable characteristic. Unlike, say, the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, who is equally prickly and prejudiced, but at least has a tremendous strength of character and sense of family.
I suppose there were a few redeeming moments in the book, but to paraphrase Mr Darcy, those moments aren't redemptive enough to tempt me.
But just in case you'd like a different opinion of this book, I direct you to Alice at Reading Rambo, who swooned and got all nervous and agitated through much of it.