book review: The Guest by Emma Cline
Overview: Alex leads a chaotic life. She takes it one day at a time, navigating each hurdle hour by hour as they all pile up on one another. At twenty-two, she's made her way from New York City to the Hamptons for the summer, schmoozing with older rich men to get by, floating somewhere between being an escort and a sugar baby. How Alex arrived at this point is never revealed, but for a week, we follow her through the Hamptons as she scrapes by as an ephemeral guest in various sad, rich Hamptons houses. Can she untangle the web by Labor Day to set her life back on course? Overall: 3.5
Characters: 3 Alex is both fascinating and utterly flat. On a scene by scene, moment by moment level, Alex is a fascinating character to follow. She's developed her own moral code, and she runs on a series of survival rules that help her slip between the cracks as she takes advantage of others under the radar. She's manipulative but not without having a conscience, and her motives are extremely short sided which is fascinating to watch as her choices all start to catch up with her by the end. She has great observations and is rewarding to follow, but the big issue with making Alex a satisfying character is the fact that her backstory is never filled out. Throughout the book, she's being chased by this sketchy figure named Dom. What their relationship was and what went wrong is only ever described in the broadest strokes. There are occasional comments or flashbacks to her getting into the escort scene in New York and learning the ropes, but we never discover anything about her childhood or teenage years or how she went from waitressing to skimming other people's pockets. There's no insight to the why behind it all which just leaves the bigger swings broadly unsatisfying.
While Alex is missing a certain level of dimension for a main character, the supporting characters she encounters and takes advantage of along the way are all interesting sketches colored by Alex's own interpretations and biases. There's the insecure, older rich men and the wives they're all too happy to betray. The kids left to be raised by nannies. The teenagers and young adults who have grown up with everything except a true sense of self, and the others who chameleon between worlds in the same ways that Alex does but within different contexts. What Alex is able to both glean from and exploit from these different people makes the book worth reading.
Plot: 3 The set up moves pretty slowly at the beginning as we orient ourselves in the largely repetitive days Alex has found herself in living in the Hamptons house of her most recent benefactor, Simon. While Dom is threatening to find her over owed money and her life is anything but stable, Cline takes her time establishing the calm before the storm – almost too much time. The book picks up after she loses her cushy spot with Simon and has to figure out how to sustain herself on the island alone with basically no money, no friends, and no phone until she can get back in his good graces at his Labor Day party. The more characters that come into the fold and the more precarious her situation, the better the book flows.
If you've read any other reviews about this book or even did a cursory skim of the Amazon page, you'd figure out pretty fast that most people are angry at the book's ending. And, yes, it's pretty unsatisfying. There's a disorienting twist right before the big final moment, and then the last scene cuts off in complete ambiguity written in such a gauzy fashion I wasn't entirely convinced it wasn't meant as some weird after death dream sequence (though I couldn't find anyone else who got the same impression from the reviews I read). Regardless, the reveals that would explain how Alex got to this point and add the much needed depth to the story never came. And *mild spoiler* we don't even find out whether Simon takes her back or if Dom actually comes after her. I'm all for an ambiguous ending, but it felt like this book didn't have an ending at all. Like the author just got tired of typing a few pages early and clicked submit.
Writing: 4 I'm honestly torn about how much I liked Cline's writing. There were chapters I loved where Alex jumped off the page, and I grew entirely invested in both the plot and the characters. On the other hand, so much of the book felt entirely hollow and removed in a way that just felt like something was missing. I expected these blank spots develop with time, but that never happens.
Cline's style reminds me of another much lauded author whose appeal I don't quite get – Ottessa Moshfegh. They both have a love of writing these sly, removed, morally gray characters that I just feel lack the detail necessary to fully take in the story. But that by no means diminishes either of their ability to write interesting sentence by sentence prose, and that's what you have to prize most to really love this book.
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