If you've read any of Sarah Waters's novels—Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet are personal favorites—you know what to expect from The Paying Guests (Riverhead Books, $28.95): a book set somewhere in Great Britain, sometime in the past, with a lesbian romance central to the plot. Waters is profoundly interested in the things we do for love, and what happens when we're forced to subsume our passions, to keep them out of view. But just because Waters plucks at the same themes every time doesn't mean that she's formulaic, like a mystery writer who lightly tweaks the setting and characters in each episode.

Guests is set in London just after World War I. On the first page, we meet Frances Wray, a single woman who lives in a large house with her mother. All the men of the house are gone, dead in the war, and the once-proper Wrays have slid from the upper class, though they still clutch at decorum and the naive hope that they'll one day be reinstated with the elite. They've gotten rid of all their servants, and circumstances finally force them to take on boarders in order to pay the bills. A young married couple named Leonard and Lilian Barber take a room with the Wrays, and for a while, Guests is a comedy of manners as the Wrays attempt to keep up appearances (Frances's mother is simultaneously appalled that her daughter has to clean the floors and disgusted that Frances did not do a better job of cleaning the floors) and adjust to living with a man again:

There was more jaunty whistling, in the days that followed. There were more yodeling yawns at the top of the stairs. There were sneezes, too—those loud masculine sneezes, like shouts into the hand, that Frances could remember from the days of her brothers; sneezes that for some reason never came singly, but arrived as a volley and led inevitably to a last-trump blowing of the nose.

Because the Wrays are relentless practitioners of politesse, the tension begins to build. It only increases when Lilian and Frances begin to feel flutters of romantic love. Waters is especially good at writing about love and sex; she can describe an ordinary fainting couch in language gorgeous enough to make her readers blush, so when her characters finally act out their desires, the word "orgiastic" springs to mind. And then halfway through The Paying Guests, everything explodes in a moment of violence that burns all the manners and class distinctions to the ground. Though Waters luxuriates in the languid prose of post-Victorian England, the second half of Guests rockets toward a conclusion that, the reader suspects with increasing dread, cannot possibly be a happy ending.

Waters seems to welcome comparisons to Charles Dickens—Frances pledges her allegiance to his novels several times in the book—and her prose is enlivened with Dickensian ornamentations. (If they were to travel back in time, Frances and her mother could easily be bit characters in Little Dorrit, a pair of propriety-obsessed women living alone in a drafty house.) But Waters lacks Dickens's propensity for digression; even at nearly 600 pages, Guests could use some of the messy, unnecessary threads that adorned all of his books as a happy consequence of serial storytelling. In the first half of the book, Waters is almost too good at omitting needless scenes and characters from Guests—that un-Dickensian economy feels like a missed opportunity. But in the darkness of the second half, the economy of the first half makes sense, because Guests becomes a lean, twisted thriller, seemingly inspired by a very different author. The first three hundred pages of Guests belong to Charles Dickens, but the rest of the book reads like pure, uncut Patricia Highsmith. Waters brings the best of those disparate muses together and convinces them to dance to the tune of her beautiful music. recommended