Emma Cline’s most recent novel The Guest, following unhurriedly on the heels of her wildly successful 2017 debut The Girls, is a book meant for the summer. It is meant to be read as your sweat sticks the skin of your limbs together, the acid taste of spray-on sunscreen on your tongue. The novel meanders through its plot like flip-flopped feet dragged through sand, eyelids drooping from heat-induced fatigue. It is a book that feels like saltwater on your lips, like a sunburn that will turn into a tan. The simple yet stunning cover design, a hand outstretched against a cool green background, begs you to pick the novel up, and refuses to let you put it down once you do.
The Guest follows a young woman named Alex, who is invited to the Hamptons over the summer to spend time with the latest of the wealthy men she has seduced, Simon. Despite this financially lucrative pastime, which the narration makes clear Alex has participated in for an unclear amount of years, she is unemployed and running from circumstances that Cline keeps at a hazy distance from the reader: she’s been kicked out of her apartment by roommates fed up with her drug abuse and kleptomaniac tendencies, and is being harassed by a man––an ex-fling? an old friend? someone else?––named Dom, who calls and texts her all hours of the day. When Alex is abruptly expelled from Simon’s beach house and shuffled unceremoniously to the train station by his assistant, she resolves to stay in the Hamptons, homeless for the next six days before Simon’s Labor Day party, instead of returning to the life she’s running from. She spends the last dredges of the summer floating aimlessly from house to house, bed to bed, and counting down the days until Labor Day, as the lies she’s told continue to fold her up inside them.
The Guest represents a break from Cline’s debut The Girls, a critically lauded but nonetheless controversial novel set in Northern California in the late 60s and inspired by Charles Manson and the members of his cult known as the Manson girls. The novel’s young women are similarly aimless, similarly under the thumb of a charismatic and powerful man, similarly enamored with their own maturity and independence. The Girls is a tight, clean book, efficient and enthralling in its storytelling. But The Guest resists such tightness and cleanliness. The novel more closely echoes the stories from Cline’s 2021 collection Daddy, all varied in plot but similar in their hesitance to impart the reader with too much knowledge. Similarly, The Guest keeps its audience at a polite distance; one can’t help but get the sense that they are an outsider as much as Alex is, worthy of a smile and handshake, but nothing more. The result is a novel that plays with its own transparency), which quickly becomes one of its most engrossing qualities. The reader fills in their own answers to the open-ended questions that the novel asks about Alex, her past, and the people chasing her. The worst case scenario often becomes the reality, imparting the novel with a juxtapositional intensity as Alex lounges alongside a countless number of crystal clear pools.
On the subject of pools, water is an unavoidable motif of the novel. In its opening pages, Alex is floating listlessly on her back in the ocean, until she is caught unexpectedly far from shore. A riptide current presses against her strokes, pushing her further from the beach the harder she struggles towards it, until she remembers to swim parallel to the shore instead of right at it. “Hasn’t she always been good at seeing things clearly?” she reminds herself. The pools that speckle the properties of the beach-side mansions, their inherent redundancy a potent symbol of privilege and wealth, are not safe either. In a spiritually similar scene, Alex finds herself in another stranger’s house and goes skinny dipping in their pool. She’s caught by the family’s nanny, watching her from inside the house: “How did the look Karen gave Alex seem to contain everything? Knowledge of exactly what kind of person Alex was.” The moment is just as tense and stripping (literally) as Alex’s encounter with the riptide, imbued with a hostility as powerful as a merciless force of nature. And Alex can see this hostility clear as day.
Alex’s strong, refreshing voice propels the book’s narration. She is sure of her decisions, too trusting of her own confidence. The Labor Day party is a light at the end of a six day tunnel, and Alex remains singularly focused on it, while disaster unfolds around her. She is compellingly infuriating in her tendency towards bad decisions but really, the reader finds themself asking, would they do anything different? But their answer is likely that they would never find themself here in the first place. Cline’s prose is taut and restrained, shying away from The Girls‘ flowery descriptions for a more grounded style effective in drawing attention to what it is that isn’t being said.
The story is grippingly stressful, despite the reader’s certainty of its ultimate conclusion. Alex’s certainty of the opposite––that Simon will welcome her back with open arms on Labor Day––is a delusion she entertains to the bitter end. The conclusion is inevitable, the book is not about its conclusion. It is about the moments of claustrophobia, the sweaty confinement of not belonging, in between. Alex’s cell phone falls in yet another pool at the beginning of the novel, and the technology’s slow degradation over the course of the story, cutting Alex off from contact with anyone but Dom––whose incessant attempts at communication are the only things visible through the blurry screen––is torturously stress-inducing. These elements work in tandem with the setting, a quintessentially relaxing environment, which Alex wanders languidly through, to make the moments of quiet and peace the worst of them all, as the reader remains aware of the clock ticking down and just how high Alex’s lies are piling on top of each other.
The Guest is a sharp, effective novel and the culminating evolution of Cline’s previous work. It is a summer read that promises not to let you relax, enveloping you in its engrossing story like the weighted-blanket heat of the weather outside. The Guest invites you in and then kicks you out, leaving you wishing, like Alex, that the door could open for you once again.