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The Guest


The Guest

As THE GUEST opens, summer is drawing to a close. Twenty-two-year-old Alex (who we eventually learn is a call girl) has been spending time with Simon, a much older man, at his Long Island summer home. He is gearing up to host his annual Labor Day party.

Alex is good-looking, and being with Simon makes her feel desired and safe, giving her the illusion of belonging in his world of wealth and privilege. But one ill-advised mistake at a party the weekend before Labor Day, combined with the impending arrival of his adult daughter for a visit, causes Simon to retract his need for Alex’s escort services, along with her invitation to stay at his home, revealing the tenuousness of her social position.

"Emma Cline manages to evince a startling degree of interiority, even though her narrative uses a third person voice."

Little does Simon know (or, most likely, care) that Alex doesn’t actually have an apartment in the city to return to after his housekeeper drops her off at the train station. She’s been kicked out by her roommates, and an ominous figure named Dom keeps sending her increasingly threatening text messages. So Alex hatches a plan: she’ll make do for the next week, finding ways to crash with strangers until Labor Day, when Simon --- having recovered from his fit of pique --- will surely welcome her back to his party with open arms.

What unfolds next is a week of Alex doing not much but trying to get by. She slinks her way into a weekenders’ rented party house, crashes with an acquaintance’s caretaker until things get weird, and charms a wealthy but perhaps unstable teenage boy with a poorly directed crush.

Along the way, Emma Cline manages to evince a startling degree of interiority, even though her narrative uses a third person voice. Alex is observant and introspective, but she doesn’t dwell on any kind of outlandish backstory that has brought her to the desperate place where she finds herself. In fact, that’s kind of the point. During one exchange, she realizes an acquaintance is “[e]xpecting some explanation, some logical equation --- x had happened to her, some terrible thing, and so now y was her life, and of course that made sense. But how could Alex explain --- there wasn’t any reason, there had never been any terrible thing. It had all been ordinary.”

This ordinariness is perhaps one of the most unsettling things about THE GUEST. Particularly after Alex encounters another escort, who in some ways introduced her to this lifestyle years earlier in a restaurant bathroom, Cline gives the impression that there are countless young women like Alex making their shadowy way through this rarefied realm of wealth and privilege. As she describes it, they serve as “a sort of inert piece of social furniture --- only her presence was required, the general size and shape of a young woman.” Both very little and too much are expected of Alex and those like her --- and in the end, readers are left to draw their own conclusions about what her future holds.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 19, 2023

The Guest
by Emma Cline