Emma Cline’s smash hit first novel, The Girls, was the biggest-selling hardback debut novel of 2016 and attracted fans as diverse as Lena Dunham and Richard Ford. A collection of short stories entitled Daddy came next but there hasn’t been another novel until now. The Guest is tighter in focus than The Girls – the latter had a double time-frame and beautifully delineated the experience of girls at the fringes of a Manson-like cult. The Guest is about one woman, 22-year-old Alex, who is staying with an older man, Simon, on the East Coast.
Cline is a peerlessly confident writer and avoids any obvious exposition so we don’t know exactly how Alex ended up at Simon’s house or why she wants to be there but we can guess. We do know that her roommates kicked her out of her apartment for stealing and not paying her rent. There are various hotels and restaurants she is not welcome at and she owes money to a man disturbingly named Dom – whose incensed messages flicker on her rarely functioning mobile phone.
Alex is adept at pilfering from strangers (a silver barrette, an ornament, handfuls of chocolate-covered almonds) but she also seems to believe that by stealing from the rich people she targets, she is simply engaging in an “efficient allocation of resources”. At a dinner party Simon takes her to, wearing a dress he has paid for, she ends up in the pool flirting fully clothed with the hostess’s husband. Simon abruptly suggests she returns to her apartment the next day – something we know is impossible. Alex had forgotten the golden rule, that she is eminently replaceable – she is simply “a sort of inert piece of social furniture — only her presence was required, the general size and shape of a young woman.”
Although her heroine ruthlessly exploits everyone she meets, Cline somehow manages to stop her appearing as a monster. Refreshingly, there is no traumatising experience from her past to explain her grifting – when another character questions her actions, she reflects to herself “there wasn’t any reason, there had never been any terrible thing. It had all been ordinary.” The sex in itself is never the problem: “And really, it was nice, having a strange hand on her. She had never minded that part.” We realise how predatory she is when she seduces a teenage boy and “she felt some thrill, the boy prone beneath her.”
Alex is nonetheless precariously reliant on pleasing the men who bankroll her – reminiscent of a younger version of a Jean Rhys heroine or Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
She knows how to recognise other escorts, whom she views as “Girls in drag as girls” but she has taught herself not to be too obvious, never to take too much at the beginning, nor to say thank you for presents or otherwise draw attention to the fact that she is not at home in the monied environment of the Hamptons – this intriguingly, extends even to not complimenting anyone’s house in case this marks you out too obviously as a guest.
We know that she is beautiful from the way other people react to her but she has the kind of powerlessness that when you are very young can feel like power. Even at 22, she is worried about wrinkles and considering a breast augmentation. At one point – in desperation for someone to pay her way – she effectively kidnaps a child for the afternoon, willing to humour him whilst she expenses snacks and beers to his family’s credit card, unbeknownst to them.
The Guest lacks some of the intense narrative propulsion of The Girls but so do many contemporary novels and it is worth its weight in gold if any young woman reading it realises the dangers of treating life as Cline wrote in The Girls, as “a waiting room until someone noticed you.”
The Guest by Emma Cline (£18.99, Chatto & Windus) is out on 18 May