The Guest is a fun and delicious dive into the lives of the affluent in a way where you don’t feel the need to envy them. It will curb your appetite for a scoop into the luxurious and excessive upper class with stunning and entrancing writing, as well as your desire to glimpse snapshots into the raw human experience. However, do not expect to connect with the characters in a meaningful way or climactic points in the plot.
Emma Cline’s newest novel has joined the ever-increasing long list of books and media that focus on the inner workings and intimacies of the wealthy, a trend that has skyrocketed through the boom of shows like The White Lotus, The Real Housewives and Succession. The Guest, with nothing more than a deer against an unassuming background of murky emerald-coloured water as a cover, showcases a narrative saturated with privilege, power and performativity.
Cline’s protagonist is a young woman whose identity moves from thief to girlfriend of a rich businessman, Simon, to unwelcome (and now homeless) house guest, forced to ruthlessly finesse her way through Long Island’s upper class to survive the five days before returning to Simon’s house for a Labour Day party. Riddled with shenanigans and sunscreen-soaked pool parties across the five-day period, Cline’s novel does more than provide insights into the lives of the rich in deliciously golden and excessive slices–it lampoons their lifestyles as something ridiculous and futile. The plot is deceptively simple, layered and laced with intricate detailing to the aquatic landscape of Long Island, the (all true) stereotypes of the wealthy, the female performativity necessary to survive and the lie of the American Dream. Cline exquisitely wraps this all up in a seductive and appropriately constrained writing voice, with undercurrents of unease and desire wafting on every page. However, the novel isn’t perfect. The plot feels repetitive and empty. You are never rooting for any characters. The ending, Alex’s fall from grace and drift further into illusion, is dragged out and too open-ended.
Of course, none of the characters are particularly likeable, including Alex. As a grifter, she is deceptive, careless and callous, taking advantage and adapting her identity to squeeze as much as she can out of every situation. Every encounter leading up to Simon’s Labour Day party forces Alex to perform a role as a means of protection and survival: a seductive sex siren, a cool-girl and a family friend. Cline’s depiction of female performativity, whereby personal reasons have forced Alex to be all-people, is cleverly reminiscent of the capitalist-rooted ideal that sex, identity and personality is commodified for women to just scrape by. It’s a fresh perspective on contemporary feminism and Cline gives the issue the justice it deserves.
Alex’s troubled past and backstory is written as a shadow of her present life; it always seeps onto the surface of the narrative and yet readers are never made to feel like they know exactly what has happened. Strangely, there is no explicit revealing of any past trauma from Alex’s background, which would have made the story feel more round. These elements were undoubtedly Cline’s choice to add more mystery to her characters, but it’s hard to invest in the characters when we know so little about them.
The writing is the champion of the novel. The Guest was my first Emma Cline novel, and I was consistently enchanted and haunted by Cline’s writing voice: her use of metaphor is original and punchy, her imagery both visceral and vivid. Her descriptions of the natural landscape, notably water at the beach or at the many pools Alex visits, is truly beautiful. Credit to Cline’s writing ability is due and well-deserved, further exemplified by her careful unravelling of Alex’s sense of reality that seems to become hazy and distant. Regardless of whether you mesh with the plot, the writing does enough to hold your attention.
The plot, despite Cline’s portrait of a woman navigating a world that is gradually rejecting her, becomes lacklustre as Alex continuously fails to accurately foresee the obvious future. Alex scrambles from place to place, contemplating the same problems and visiting the same places–there is little to no character development or resolution. In the last fifty pages of the novel, I had grown bored with Alex’s repetitive behaviour and the circularity of the writing which was beginning to feel cumbersome. By the novel’s end, it is not unfair to say that you feel no different to when you started.
The Guest is a fun and delicious dive into the lives of the affluent in a way where you don’t feel the need to envy them. It will curb your appetite for a scoop into the luxurious and excessive upper class with stunning and entrancing writing, as well as your desire to glimpse snapshots into the raw human experience. However, do not expect to connect with the characters in a meaningful way or climactic points in the plot. Most characters do not develop for the better, with readers relying on Cline’s writing to carry them through. Read this book for the writing, if anything.