(Random House, 2023)
Everything in Emma Cline’s latest novel The Guest is so green. The impression of trees outside the open window of a sports car, traveling from private property to private property. The shrubs on the dunes. The pastel gelato. The soup. The tint of a woman’s expensive-looking sunglasses, their designer’s name kept hidden. The lawns, the lawns, the lawns.
When she’s not busy planning each move of her cleverly extended stay in the Hamptons, this is what twenty-two-year-old antihero Alex notices: all that green, pleasant if she blurs her eyes, a little suffocating if she thinks about it too long—so she doesn’t.
How, exactly, did she wind up here, spending the summer with Simon, a fifty-something whose job affords him an oceanfront vacation house with high ceilings and “big paintings that, by pure dint of their square footage, implied high value”? Simon, who dresses Alex in elegant purses and earth-toned outfits (which are meant, she suspects, to make her look older for the sake of his own self-image)? It’s as though Alex entered through some glowing backdoor into the metaphor of Gatsby’s green light, and everything is suddenly calm. It’s peaceful in here (and unsettling, its stillness surely artificial—but that’s fine, Alex thinks, before her thoughts move briskly on).
Before meeting Simon, she spent the last few years in the city trading sex for nights out, for brunches with “unripe strawberries and too-sweet juice,” for unspoken permission to use her clients’ credit cards now and then, enough to get by. Her attitude toward sex work is round, human, complicated: she never minds, and often likes, touching a stranger. But, at first almost imperceptibly, she senses that interest in her is waning. Has she started seeming too desperate? She lowers her rates, and still. How to cope? She could “defect” to her hometown—which Cline, resisting a neat narrative, smartly leaves unnamed. She could keep getting laser treatments, smoothing out the lines surfacing on her face. Or: she could stop paying rent and start swiping some of her roommates’ Klonopin. She could drain a little—or had it been a lot?—from one of her client’s bank accounts, a client who was—or wasn’t he?—prone to violence. The trick was to regard the events of your own life as though through a thick, cinematic mist: who knew what had actually happened? Not Alex.
When she meets Simon at a bar, she almost writes him off: a “civilian,” too interested in propriety to show interest in anything transactional. But might he be a more permanent way out of this hole she’d slipped into, of debts owed and men carefully avoided? A studious performer, Alex learns her part with this civilian. It’s her role to be convenient, agreeable. To smile. Not to have dietary restrictions. “It was easy,” Cline writes. “And then easier.” This was a role she could get used to. It might even, Alex finds herself hoping, turn into something “real.”
As a guest and something of a habitual, if sympathetic, scammer, Alex is an ideal guide to Simon’s world. Just as her own performed sunniness belies the mind of a sharp observer, she notices that the ease with which Simon and his friends glide through their dinner parties depends on a team of workers kept mostly out of sight. There’s Lori, Simon’s “assistant” (he wouldn’t be so crass as to call her a housekeeper or maid), who spends hours each day inspecting his dog for ticks. There’s Nicholas, Simon’s friend’s employee, who seems to magically anticipate others’ wants.
Alex gets to know these characters’ depths—their lovers and children, their resentments and drug habits—but Simon prefers to regard them as flat, or, ideally, to think about them as little as possible. This same attitude applies to Alex, who might as well be in Simon’s service. She doesn’t mind; it’s the best gig she’s ever had. In fact, when she does manage to inconvenience Simon and get banished unceremoniously from his haven, she bounces from the beach to a houseful of weekenders to a country club and to an abandoned development along with a needy teen, before returning, she hopes, to Simon. She’ll show up, casually if unannounced, to his Labor Day party. By then, his irritation, she figures, will have inevitably cooled.
Alex’s odyssey proves her to be a perfect critic of Simon’s green world, the paler locales just downstream of it, and the work and performances that uphold the whole place’s appearance of ease. At the same time, her journey follows what feels like her last-ditch effort toward—it must be named, because a cliche is what lies at the heart of all this—the American dream, or what’s available of it to Alex. Lush yards, trusting neighbors. Does this set-up depend on old-fashioned gender roles? Does it all feel listless, devoid of real feeling? Does it feel impossible for Alex to keep up the act?
Cline manages to balance her heroine’s willful delusions, her desire for security and her itchiness once she has it, her shrewdness, and her real, embodied desires, without slipping into cliches herself. While there have been plenty of books and films written recently about women antiheroes—enough to spawn an even greater number of think pieces against what’s been named as a trope—The Guest uses the genre as a deliberate social critique. So long as these hierarchies exist, Cline suggests, so, too, will these stories.