The Guest: A Novel

Image of The Guest: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Random House
Reviewed by: 

At one point in this steely cold but effective novel by Emma Cline, someone asks Alex, the young female protagonist: “Why are you like this?”

Alex is a beautiful, willowy woman who floats through the world of the wealthy. Her beauty is her currency, and it’s clear from her interior thoughts, that there really isn’t that much more to know. Alex is anything but self-aware, and most of her judgements about herself and others are just plain wrong.

She seems taken aback when asked the question about why she is the way she is, which is essentially a grifter. She muses: “And he was really asking. Expecting 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.”

We learn from the story that Alex is essentially a Sugar Baby, trading sexual favors with men for money, euphemistically referred to as “six hundred roses” or “six hundred kisses” in her online ads.

The thing is, Alex can’t even do that right. She’s like the con artist Ana Delvey with none of the smarts. Alex alienates her Johns, using their credit cards, steals from her roommates and never pays her share of the rent. She’ll steal anything that’s not nailed down, including any pill she can lay her hands on. No medicine cabinet is safe.  

The only way Alex gets by is to hook up permanently with a generous Sugar Daddy and at the start of the novel, she done just that. We meet her on the swishy end of Long Island one summer in one of those multimillion-dollar mansions with Simon, a businessman who seems to care for Alex’s body and not much else. Alex is desperately trying to hold onto Simon so he’ll keep her around and it seems to be working until Simon catches her flirting with a younger man.

The next morning, Simon’s assistant tells her he’s paying for her train ticket back to Manhattan. Alex’s fantasy of the good long-term thing is over, just like that. The assistant drops her off at the train station and Alex sits and ruminates. On her way out the door, she’s managed to cage a few extra dollars, but her cell phone is broken, and she has nowhere and nobody to turn to. On top of all that, a former John—a dangerous one—has tracked down her location, and his threatening texts appear in the few moments each day she gets her cell phone to work.

This is Alex’s dilemma and, thanks to the power of Cline’s prose, it’s hard to turn away. Although Alex is unlikeable, she’s also vulnerable, and the reader finds themself rooting for her. How will she get by? Even she knows she can’t last long without any support system.

“Alex had the sick sense that she was a ghost,” Cline writes. “Wandering the land of the living. But that was dumb, a dumb thought. It was just when the day was hot like this, hot and gray, anxiety moved closer to the surface.”

Cline is a great writer, and Alex is in some ways reminiscent of the young women described in The Girls, her earlier novel about the Manson family. This time, the cult is wealth, and Alex is a devoted follower.

Alex somehow convinces herself that Simon has cast her out only until his annual Labor Day party, just a few days away. If she can only hold on until then, surely he’ll welcome her back into the fold.

But can she hold out with almost no money and no cell phone for those few days? It’s like a weird moneyed version of that streaming show Alone. But instead of being cast into the outdoors, Alex finds herself in a beach community with only a bagful of skimpy clothing and some tanning lotion. Can she survive on free hamburgers, drinks, and an abandoned mansion?

It’s fascinating to see her try as she latches first onto to a house sitter and later a rich teenager with his own problems. She even uses children when she must, posing as a babysitter to gain entry to a beach club. She is a moral vacuum who, unlike Anna Delvey, can fool almost no one—not even, in the end, the teenagers.  

The question at hand—“Why are you like this?”—haunts the novel. And the terrifying answer is that maybe she’s a product of a culture that places meaning in the Kardashian family.