Emma Cline has a penchant for writing about troubled young women who just can’t seem to elude disaster and destruction. First there was 2016’s smash-hit, The Girls, a stunning debut about a 14-year-old in suburban San Francisco who gets lured by a group of women into joining a dangerous, Manson-esque cult. And now there’s Cline’s latest, The Guest, which centers on yet another woman barreling toward rock bottom.
Alex is a 22-year-old escort in Manhattan. Her client list is all but dried up, she’s banned from various hotels and bars around the city for conducting business where she shouldn’t and her roommates have kicked her out of their apartment for stealing their things and neglecting to pay her share of the rent. She’s also dodging calls and texts from a man whom she owes money and is eager to pop any pill she can get her hands on.
A calculating opportunist who’s all too comfortable lying and stealing, she’s been spending the summer living with Simon, a 50-something-year-old, at his house in the Hamptons. She’s content at first, but Cline makes it clear that this is someone who eventually messes up every situation she’s in, so it’s not terribly surprising when a pair of missteps inspire Simon to put Alex on the first train back to the city with the vague suggestion that he’ll check back in in a week.
But Alex never gets on the train; instead, she decides to stay on Long Island for five more days, at which point she’ll show up to Simon’s Labor Day party and all will be forgiven. The week goes by in a haze as Alex spends her nights in a house-share with a group of friends she latches onto, a family she meets at the beach and a sheltered and emotionally fragile teenage boy who doesn't react well when Alex moves onto her next mark.
Alex is compelling if not exactly likable, and interestingly, Cline doesn’t assign her a stereotypical sob story childhood that would explain away her problems. (“There wasn’t any reason, there never had been any terrible thing. It had all been ordinary,” the author maintains.) Even so, fans of The Girls might find The Guest a bit less narratively exciting, since—unsurprisingly, given the Manson parallels of the former—there's a lot less at stake on Alex's journey.
At turns languid and tense, Alex’s week-long odyssey—much like her life—is a trainwreck: hard to watch but impossible to look away from.