The Guest by Emma Cline
The Guest is the second novel by Emma Cline, following her acclaimed 2016 debut The Girls. I read The Girls years ago and loved it, so I was very excited to find out that Cline was finally publishing a follow-up after seven years.
The Guest follows Alex, a 22-year-old escort, over the course of one week in an unnamed seaside town somewhere near New York City. After Alex meets wealthy businessman Simon in a hotel bar, going with him to his holiday house for the summer seems like the perfect way to escape the city and leave her debts, the families of her ex-clients, and the man who won’t stop calling behind. She lives a life of lavish dinner parties, is gifted designer clothes, and goes on constant trips to the beach, until one break from character casts her out of Simon’s favour, and his house. Instead of returning to the city, she decides to somehow survive in this town without money, contacts, or a place to stay until she can reunite with Simon – who will surely want her back – at his Labour Day party in one week’s time.
Like The Girls, this novel explores the gritty, sometimes salacious side of young womanhood and coming into one’s femininity in a world where being desired by men can bring both danger and power. I think that the strongest part of The Guest – other than Cline’s signature immersive writing style, which reminds me of a movie by one of the female Coppolas – was its magnification of the interplay between female identity and male desire.
Cline gives Alex a murky past, no permanent address or friends, and almost no defining traits other than being ‘very pretty’ and skilled at manipulation – we know almost nothing about her beyond the relationships with men that she uses to keep herself afloat. Alex contorts herself to fit into the lives and desires of these men to the extent that she ceases to have a separate identity of her own.
As she waits for Labour Day, she survives by slipping in and out of strangers’ lives without ever revealing anything real about herself, so that you begin to wonder whether there is anything ‘real’ about her at all.