I read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters last year and loved it. It was a slow, character-focused tale with a touch of mystery and a good bit of slow-burning romance. The average rating on Goodreads has The Paying Guests at a 3.4 out of 5 stars, which surprised me. Still, I can definitely see the faults in the novel that might turn some readers off. So, when I saw the 3.5/5 average rating for The Little Stranger, I was not deterred. I had a feeling I would like The Little Stranger more than the average rating, and I was right.
World War II is over, and the British upper-class is feeling out of place and outdated. A local doctor, Dr. Faraday, strikes up a friendship with an old family named Ayres in Warwickshire. As the Ayres’s old mansion crumbles around them, the family tries to keep up their upper-class appearance. They keep a maid they cannot really afford, make what repairs to the house they can afford, and close up the many rooms they cannot keep up with. Dr. Faraday (our first-person narrator) falls in love with the family and their old home. He tries to help his friends as best he can, but when the family and their servants begin to experience supernatural occurrences, Dr. Faraday tries to keep them grounded. He provides logical explanations for the strange marks on the walls, creepy noises, and misplaced objects. Is there a ghost in the Ayres’s home, or is it something that can be explained away by science or medicine?
The biggest “con” to reading this book is that it is very, very slow to start. As I have said many times, I like slow books, but many people do not. So, fair warning, nothing really happens for a while besides some very British conversations, lots of tea drinking, and Dr. Faraday’s inner monologue. All of these things are done well, and it is easy to get a sense of all of the characters during this time. Just… don’t go in expecting the ghostly goodness to start any time soon. There are hints of course, but the paranormal stuff does not ramp up until about 100-200 pages from the end. Speaking of the ending, it is somewhat ambiguous. Is there a ghost? Is there a curse on the family? Or are all of the happenings merely a result of stressed and unstable minds? In my opinion, there is a chance that Dr. Faraday could be an unreliable narrator too, but I have not looked into whether other readers agree or disagree with me. The answers to all of the aforementioned questions may be pretty clear to you after the book ends, but some readers might also be unsatisfied with the ending as it does not tie things up conclusively. Again, just a warning.
For me, the pros outweighed the cons for this novel. The characters were great. They are not perfect. Often, they react badly but believably to an event. They make mistakes and have misunderstandings. Everyone feels like a realistic, three-dimensional person. Even the side characters feel as if they have their own lives off the page. And, despite the slowness of the plot, I think it was done well. Just when I started to forget about the paranormal stuff and got wrapped up in a side plot, something happened and surprised me. The strange occurrences got more and more frequent toward the climax until suddenly everything reached a fever pitch. The novel also discusses class hierarchy and life in post-WWII Britain, which adds a layer of realism and some more character depth. This is simply a well-written title that feels like a classic.
Even days after finishing, I still think about this novel. The characters are so vibrant, and I miss reading about them. I really enjoyed the everyday conversations and worries of the characters. I could probably read a whole novel about them just living their lives with no actual plot. I would give The Little Stranger 4.5/5 stars, as the beginning was just a little bit slow even for me. And, from what I hear, there may be a film adaptation of The Little Stranger this fall.