"The Guest" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: May 19
Alex, the main character in Emma Cline’s immersive, addictive novel “The Guest,” has been staying at a Long Island beach house owned by Simon.
Alex is an attractive 20-something, a conniving taker who uses people to get what she wants—at present Simon delivers. He’s older, but not too old, monied, and provides Alex with the creature comforts she needs until she moves on to her next victim. “It had been easy to slot herself into Simon’s life…its textures and habits were so finely woven that Alex had only to submit.”
Alex’s success depends on her being able “…to offer up no friction whatsoever” in her relationships. When she isn’t on Simon’s arm at dinner parties, Alex’s time is spent watching television or swimming in the ocean. She’s amazed to see others’ belongings neatly deposited at the beach, shoes for example, left about for anyone’s taking. It’s clear Alex has trust issues from her past, a childhood never divulged to readers.
When Alex wants something, she snatches it up—Simon’s painkillers from a long ago surgery—anything left out, or cast aside in a drawer, is fair game for Alex, who justifies her deceit as she victimizes those she believes can save her from a troubled former relationship. We never meet Dom, the man she’s dodging, only know him from incessant texts and phone calls he makes to Alex, who is scared of him, leading us to believe he’s abused her and she has something he wants back—or else.
Simon’s attraction for Alex sours when she can’t curb her impulses and oversteps bounds, swimming naked in Simon’s pool with one of his friends at an exclusive party Simon hosts. After another lapse in judgement, Alex is booted out of Simon’s home, left to fend for herself, no money to speak of and nowhere to stay. With Dom’s calls increasing, and a deadline he keeps mentioning growing closer, Alex grows even more desperate, yet she trusts her instincts for survival, knowing if she plays people the right way, gives them what they want, she’ll be fine. Alex’s missteps finally catch up with her, leaving readers to wonder if she’ll be nailed or if she’ll again slip the knot of her transgressions.
“The Guest” is a fast-paced book with a main character who’s despicable, tension rising as we flip the pages to see what Alex will do next. Readers will find it difficult to develop a modicum of empathy for Alex, who sinks progressively lower on the rung of morality. Yet in some ways, Alex isn’t too different from the upper-crust, wealthy social climbers like Simon and his associates.
Cline doesn’t pass judgement on Alex—she leaves that up to us in an interesting and very different story certain to illicit lots of opinions. I loved it.