A pool illuminated in the darkness.

Emma Cline
The Guest

Alex is in her early 20s, but it seems to her that she’s spent a long time bouncing between problems and men. When we meet her at the start of Emma Cline’s second novel, she’s not-quite-living with an older man named Simon in his vacation house in an unnamed beach town near New York. But not long into this downbeat caper, she does the wrong thing, Simon effectively kicks her out and she becomes, in different people’s lives, a different style of guest. For reasons drawn from a logic that seems wholly internal, Alex decides that if she can just hold off until a party in several days’ time, she’ll be allowed back into Simon’s good graces – his food, his money, his bed.

What does holding off mean to Alex – who lives by her wits, has a casual ability to figure out what people want from her and deflect suspicion from those she can’t charm, but also owes money to a dangerous and tenacious drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, Dom? Entertainingly, it means slipping into various grubby and needy groups for as long as they will accept her, in the dunes, parties and pool houses of this outwardly welcoming beach town that is actually mean and moneyed and doesn’t have any hotels.

After The Girls, a 2016 literary blockbuster about a Manson family analogue that is most memorable for its spiky and specific visions of human fears, Cline published Daddy, a collection of stories that share more of this novel’s low-key tone. Wherever Alex goes, she meets men, women, old people and young who ooze a mix of heartbreaking vulnerability and mercenary calculation. Intentions are obvious but ostensibly polite. The overall effect is warmly predatory.

This is the contemporary sweetness that gives the novel its disturbing polish and the contemporary ugliness that gives it its disturbing depth. More than anything, though, Cline’s novel is in dialogue with the past. Maybe because its plot has two different countdown clocks – how long can Alex hang around the beach town with no shelter or money; will Dom, who keeps texting unpleasantly, finally track her down – it has the grimy engine of a mid-century Los Angeles noir that both mirrors and belies its cruisy East Coast setting.

I was amazed by the sustained dialogue that feels so natural but is consistently powered by a rat-a-tat-tat toughness. It’s a very dark vision for so bright a beach. 

Chatto & Windus, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "The Guest ".

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