THE PAYING GUESTS, by Sarah Waters. Riverhead, 566 pp., $28.95.

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, as masterminded by British novelist Sarah Waters, a three-time Booker Prize finalist.

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"The Barbers had said they would arrive by three." See how innocently it begins? Having lost both her brothers in the war, and her father shortly after, 27-year-old Frances is forced to inform her mother that the only way they can make ends meet is to take in boarders -- a shocking comedown for the once-elegant family. While Mrs. Wray wrings her hands, Frances converts the second floor to an apartment, installs a coin-operated gas meter and brings in the tenants, the decidedly middle-class Leonard and Lilian Barber. But even she is a bit undone as they move in all their tacky possessions and, soon after, entertain Lilian's loud, crass family in what used to be Mrs. Wray's bedroom.

On a whim, after the rambunctious guests depart, Frances invites Lilian to join her for a smoke -- a secret one, as Mother doesn't approve. In those moments, confidences are shared and something unexpected ensues -- a friendship. "They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening -- Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that. Did Mrs. Barber feel it?"

Why yes, she does. And she will soon be feeling a whole lot more than that, as the relationship between the two women blossoms into a passionate lesbian affair, evoked in romantic and sensual detail. As they become increasingly greedy for and obsessed with each other, the tension mounts to an unbearable pitch before exploding in a desperate, violent crime.

To say more here would be to spoil the effect, so I suggest you throw caution to the winds and pick up "The Paying Guests" for yourself. But I warn you, you won't be out of it until page 566.