We’re all familiar with the coupling of rich, older men and women half their age. It’s the troubled, age-old dynamic you can find in Hollywood, politics, and everywhere in-between. It’s also the sort of relationship 22-year-old Alex tries to game in Emma Cline’s latest novel, The Guest. Alex’s life is spiraling out of her control—a complete nosedive—until 50-something year-old Simon arrives as “the emergency exit she had always suspected would present itself.” As in: When she has no other options, she knows she can take the predatory interest older men have toward her and flip it for her advantage.
This is a game Alex has learned to play with expert precision. Although she never outright says she used to be a sex worker, it’s heavily implied in flashbacks and when she validates her newest venture: “This was not that. This thing with Simon.” With the reader, she paints broad strokes about her past—about the girl’s she’s worked with, who’ve taught her the moves to make with wealthy older men. Alex knows who to pretend to be to please them. And so, she leads Simon to believe she’s a recent college graduate with a modest upbringing, whose biggest rebellion against her family has been leaving the church. When he believes her, she’s rewarded with a trip on his helicopter to the Hamptons for the summer, accepting the dresses and handbags and gifts he has to give her (partly to make her look older than she actually is). She tells herself what she has with Simon is real love, or could be.
Of course, the life Alex is actually running away from looks a lot different. As Cline reminds readers a handful of times, Alex is twenty-two years old, and she’s still figuring out how to be an adult. She has roommate drama, she can’t hold down her apartment in the city, and she’s too broke to get her own place. It’s mostly relatable, except for her stealing copious amounts of drugs and cash (who knows where it all went) from a very-shady-guy who won’t leave her alone or let her get away with it. Alex’s parents are out of the picture, and there isn’t anyone stepping in to help or checking to see how she’s doing. All she has is her own efforts to reassure herself over and over that all is well, everything is okay (when it clearly isn’t).
While Cline’s aptly named first novel The Girls centered on those who were manipulated by Charles Manson, The Guest investigates an adjacent angle on why young women find themselves in romantic narratives that have been created for powerful men. What happens when women are made to feel like they are easily disposable? Like they should appear and act in ways that make them worthy of keeping around?
For Alex, this means detaching from herself—her wants, needs, and boundaries—to get closer to Simon. These habits have been deeply ingrained in Alex’s psyche by the time readers enter her story, met with statements like: “Alex had imagined the kind of person Simon would like, and that was the person Alex told him she was.” If this level of dissociation seems eerie, it’s because it is. Cline makes it clear that it is not great for anyone involved—not Alex, not Simon. Alone, that moment can feel purely manipulative, but the larger picture of Alex’s experience comes back to something more complicated: finding that emergency exit and jumping through. Finding safety. It’s just that she’s seeking it in the only way she’s learned to—through powerful men—as a guest in their more privileged lives.
As it turns out, Alex isn’t really cut out to be Simon’s next longterm relationship, and she’s not alone. She’s likely just another in a long string of young women invited out to stay with Simon in the Hamptons. Alex serves as his date to friend’s parties, where she feels like “…social furniture—only her presence was required, the general size and shape of a young woman.” It’s an impossible standard to live up to—to be there, but not as a whole person. Especially for someone as messy and complex as Alex.
That messiness eventually bleeds out, and her stay goes from being a guest to being more of an intruder. Despite her best efforts to shrink her needs—or maybe because of it—she can’t resist the impulse to get her money’s worth. She steals sunglasses, pain killers, and anything else she assumes will go unnoticed by people who possess everything. She badly dents Simon’s car and tries to pretend it never happened. What does it matter? These are people who leave their bags unattended on the beach and their cars unlocked. Alex is not like everyone else there, no matter how hard she pretends to be. No matter how brilliantly Alex reads the people around her, and tries to blend in, she can’t fake for long that she doesn’t belong.
When Simon inevitably casts Alex aside for being more of a nuisance than he imagined, the novel follows Alex as a drifter through the Hamptons. At the heart of Cline’s novel is Alex’s journey after failing to win a game that’s rigged against her. From then on, it’s total mayhem. She gets by the only way she knows how: pool-hopping, numbing out with painkillers, manipulating strangers and pretending to be someone she isn’t—all to pass time before Simon’s Labor Day party. Alex is sure she can win him back and that the emergency exit she’s been taught to seek should work—it’s got to—if she keeps trying. If she plays it just right. In a game that centers Simon’s desires and needs, she forgets that the choice is ultimately his to make—that if he holds the money, he holds the power.
Alex could so easily be written off as a gold digger, on top of being messy, toxic—any number of things—but Cline won’t have it that way. There is a sinister subtlety sprinkled throughout The Guest in the prose and interactions people have with each other, like when Alex recalls how Simon and his friend George discussed “the difficulty of finding a chef, segueing seamlessly into the recent rape accusation against a basketball player that didn’t quite add up, and what had the girl thought would happen, George said, asking a man into her dressing room?” Even if Simon isn’t the one saying it, the company he keeps makes you wonder—especially when Alex is not concerned with Simon’s complacency as a bystander, but is instead disappointed when George’s assistant hardly reacts. Although it’s never asked directly, through subtext the novel asks many questions that don’t have easy answers: Why would older, wealthy men try to buy the love of women who haven’t fully come into their own as adults? Where does the line get drawn on what gets seen as predatory behavior? How exactly did Alex end up here? And how can she get out?
Alex tries to do this by pushing through on her own, the same as she does at the beginning of the novel when she accidentally drifts too far from shore while swimming in the ocean. She somehow summons the energy to survive, reassuring herself that if she “…had been in any real danger, someone would have reacted, one of these people would have stepped in to help.” That quiet desperation follows Alex at every move she makes. The Guest takes a hard look at how someone could fall into that trap, following the emergency exit procedures she’s been taught all along—waiting again and again for them to finally work.
by Emma Cline
Random House; 304 p.
Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on Twitter, Facebook, and sign up for our mailing list.