Emma Cline’s new novel, The Guest, opens with Alex, a 22-year-old woman, getting ready to dive into the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. First though, she turns and scans the beach for a moment, taking it in: the “immaculate” sand, the light that “made it all look honeyed and mild,” the infectious yawns of the leisure class, their bodies “tanned to the color of expensive luggage.” Can they tell, she wonders, out there in the land of “unattended bags” and “cars left unlocked,” how hard she’s pretending to be used to all of this? Alex turns back and starts swimming. “In the water,” she decides, “she was just like everyone else.” In the sea, every body relies on the same center of gravity. It is only on land that some swim and others sink, for no discernible reason except that this is how we have ordered things.
The Guest is Cline’s first novel since 2016’s The Girls. Another story of intruders, The Girls was inspired by the Manson cult and follows a 14-year-old named Evie, whose parents’ divorce and the new urges that come with being a teen have filled her with an almost painful emptiness. Evie might have followed anyone anywhere, but it’s a black-haired girl named Suzanne and her unkempt friends in the park, dumpster-diving for food and pulling at one another’s dresses, who catch her eye. In Northern California, surrounded by adults on macrobiotic diets, raving about the benefits of gestalt therapy, the girls and their reckless disregard for their own well-being make them look, in Evie’s eyes, like the best kind of outsiders, “royalty in exile.” Evie goes on to spend the last summer before she’s shipped off to boarding school in and out of “the Ranch,” a commune controlled by a charismatic psychopath and sexual abuser named Russell. Evie steals from her parents and breaks into the homes of her neighbors in Petaluma to steal things for Suzanne and the other girls on the Ranch—innocent preludes to the novel’s final, deadly home invasion.
Unlike those teenage girls under Russell’s spell, The Guest’s Alex is old enough not to trust men to take care of her. Instead, she takes care of herself by using men. There’s a difference. That’s how she winds up on Long Island for the summer: She is staying with an older wealthy man named Simon in exchange for being young, pretty, and not having any baggage. She just has to keep up the lie about the last part a little longer. It’s August, and summer is almost over. By now, everyone has been dehydrated for months. Surely they won’t be sharp enough to notice a homeless sex worker with only a few hundred dollars to her name in their midst. Yet the consequences if they do are dire enough to keep the reader feeling tense. In The Guest, Cline has written a thriller about trying to get by, a summer read for the precariat. It’s a novel driven by the suspense of what it takes to survive—a suspense that can take the pleasure out of anything, even a day at the beach.
Alex arrived in New York City when she was 20. After a few years of working as an “escort,” she is already feeling expired. The late nights and pills are wearing her out, just as she has worn out her welcome in the city. First there are the hotel and restaurant managers who recognize her and threaten to call the police. Then there are the clients who stop calling “for whatever reason—ultimatums eked out of couples therapy and this new fad of radical honesty.” Alex is a quiet heroine—almost like a mist of a person, barely there. That’s what makes her appealing to men. She is also growing desperate, but—well trained in suppressing her interiority—this is something we can observe only externally, by the changes in her behavioral patterns. To keep up with the cost of living, she starts waiving references, no longer requiring a photo ID; she also pays huge fees to get her ad featured and undergoes laser treatments meant for women twice her age.
Hope starts to feel all but lost until, one day, a little American ingenuity saves her. She doesn’t need to alter the product, she decides; she simply needs a different marketing strategy. Alex realizes that she doesn’t have to put herself up for sale to survive. She spies Simon, 50-ish, in a hotel bar and decides to become a recent college grad from upstate New York, someone raised by religious parents, a sweet, naive girl in the big city looking for a father. This whole time, it suddenly occurs to her, “she’d been overlooking the protection a civilian could offer. Something more permanent.” Not long after, Simon invites Alex to spend August with him, to stay through the month until his annual Labor Day bash. A wave of relief washes over her: “She had disappeared herself—it had been easy.”
One wonders how much of Alex was really left in the first place, though. At one point, she compares herself to a ghost in the land of the living. She is, after all, a woman who has trained herself to be a blank canvas, someone capable of morphing into whatever her clients wish her to be: “Wasn’t it better to give people what they wanted? A conversation performed as a smooth transaction—a silky back-and-forth without the interruption of reality.” In many ways, Alex functions this way for the reader as well. We regard her as Simon does: She is attractive in a very American way, adaptable to market demands. Indeed, she is as American as summer barbecue—appetizing and dead inside.
There is one fleeting moment early in the novel when Alex bursts off the page, when she stops trying to survive and lets herself live. Toward the end of August, Simon takes her to a party at the home of a wealthy woman named Helen. The mansion overlooks the ocean, but by now Alex knows “not to compliment the house, not to indicate unfamiliarity with these places.” For reasons wholly illogical, self-destructive, and thrilling, Alex decides to flirt with Helen’s husband. She compliments him on his patience, referring presumably to his marriage with Helen. Afterward, “a look passed between them—and there it was, the barest shift of energy, of recognition.” They sneak off together and jump, fully clothed, into a swimming pool. Simon finds them before things can go any further, but the next day he tells Alex, “You might go back to the city today…. There’s a train in an hour and a half.”
It would be a train to nowhere, though: Alex has been evicted from her apartment. New York City might as well be the bottom of the ocean. With no home to return to, Alex has to come up with a plan. After Simon’s assistant drops her off at the station, she makes her decision: She will stay in Long Island for the next six days, until the big Labor Day bash. She imagines walking into Simon’s party, where he “would take her back, because that was the whole game he’d set up, both of them hitting their marks, and all would be well.”
The rest of the novel details Alex’s quest to survive these next six days, in the most literal sense: She needs to secure food and shelter. She will do so by blending in, by passing herself off as someone who never has to think about food and shelter. Though race is never explicitly mentioned, it is obvious that she relies on being a young, white female who looks like she belongs among the moneyed Hamptons set. She successfully manages to pass herself off as someone’s old acquaintance looped into a house share, as a rich son’s preppy new girlfriend, as a family friend of people with the last name Spencer. This week is stressful, possibly more so for the reader than for Alex, who maintains a steady diet of painkillers to numb herself. Each day plays out like a thriller in which she must invent a new backstory and a new set of reasons why she needs to crash at someone’s guesthouse or stay for lunch.
The chapters make for nail-biting episodes of class subterfuge that play out on a minefield of social codes. Don’t stop for security guards, Alex reminds herself. Don’t be surprised that people leave their shoes at the beach. This is how one behaves in “a system that existed only because everyone believed they were among people like themselves.” On one day, she sneaks into a private club by convincing a little boy’s nanny that she knows the kid. “We’re going to the pool,” the boy says. “If that’s okay with you,” Alex politely asks his minder. Her story is that she’s a family friend and hasn’t seen him for ages. Alex spends the rest of the day inside the clubhouse, charging beers and a cheeseburger and the kid’s ice cream to someone else’s tab. It works. Of course it works. The hired help, from the nanny to the barman, don’t ask too many questions. They can’t risk being wrong; they can’t chance offending the Spencers of the world.
The wealthier her interlocutors, the less suspicious they find Alex. Whereas a maid gives her a look that seems “to contain everything? Knowledge of exactly what kind of person Alex was,” the rich are slower to see through her charade. These are people so used to the affected friendliness of their service staff that they can’t tell that Alex is there only because she has to be. When one of her marks—Jack, a young man she meets on the beach—gets into a fight with his father at a restaurant, she knows to disappear into the background, to not insert herself into the argument or even consider taking a side. “She was used to this,” Cline writes, “the politeness of pretending that things that were happening were not, in fact, happening.” It is only later that Jack, who is not quite at peace with the wealth around him (he totes around a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha), finds it “weird” that Alex doesn’t look at her phone, that she doesn’t say much. “How come you don’t tell me anything?” he asks. It’s his first hint that she might, in fact, be working.
In The Guest, Cline does a pitch-perfect job of keeping Alex’s understanding of herself in sync with the reader’s. We are deprived of much of her backstory because Alex is someone who prefers not to dwell. Whenever her past enters the narrative, it does so forcefully and almost supernaturally (an ex texts to say that he knows she’s with Simon, but it’s not clear how, since she hasn’t told anyone about him). Rhythmically, Alex always has to keep moving forward; if she stops, she’ll drown. She is like a shark, except that she’s the one who could wind up getting eaten. That kind of contradiction is threaded throughout The Guest. Cline avoids a simplistic eat-the-rich story on a number of levels. For one thing, her novel is equally attuned to the hostilities that exist among people in service, the “don’t fuck this up for me” instinct that threatens to make enemies out of potential allies.
Cline has Alex observe a similar phenomenon among women. Early on in the novel, we see Alex watching a reality TV show that sounds like one of the Real Housewives franchises: “All the women in the show hated each other, hated each other so much, just so they could avoid hating their husbands.” Yet when it comes to what we might call solidarity, the author is far from a pessimist or skeptic. Alex maintains a tenderness toward other people who work for the rich, and she even threatens to blow her own cover by approaching Dana, an escort she recognizes from the city, out of nothing more than a desire to reconnect and reminisce. Cline’s fiction is at its most erotic when she highlights the affection among people from exploited groups. In The Girls, little kindnesses between Suzanne and Evie grow into a love that spares the latter the fate of becoming one of Russell’s monsters. In The Guest, Dana tells Alex, “I really don’t care to be involved in your shit anymore.” It sounds like an annoyed retort, but what it really means is “Don’t worry—I won’t tell.”
Alex also never tells. She never betrays another service worker to save herself or gets anyone in trouble on purpose. She just eats lunch, smiles, and tries to make everyone feel at ease. She is simply trying to be a good guest. Throughout the novel, Jack is reading Siddhartha, but it is Alex who wanders like a monk, swimming in pools of enlightenment and taking only what she needs. Throughout the week, she finds a world full of empty homes and food that has been forgotten. Why, then, the novel pushes us to ask, does she have to work so hard for them? Why does anyone?
By the time Labor Day and Simon’s party rolls around, we are exhausted on Alex’s behalf, having seen for ourselves all the work, the smiles, the restraint, she succeeded in making invisible. As the sun sets, we feel summer ending. In The Guest, Cline has written a beach read for the people who clean up once the party is over.