Books: “The Guest” by Emma Cline
I haven’t been out to Long Island’s Hamptons very often over the last few decades, so it’s hard to gauge the veracity of Emma Cline’s best-selling new novel “The Guest.” But you don’t have to be an owner or resident out there to see that Alex, the novel’s twenty-something protagonist, is one sorry individual.
Hailing from “somewhere upstate,” and attractive “but not pretty enough to be a model,” Alex is able to latch on to accomplished men of a certain age and serve as arm candy. The relationship with Simon, a fifty-something master of the universe, seems to be going well until the week before Labor Day—when an unanticipated breakup occurs and a disgraced Alex is cast out of Simon’s weekend Hamptons home.
What happens next drives the novel’s narrative as Alex, without a car in the Hamptons or a working smartphone, roams from beach to share house to private estate looking for her next place to crash. Her goal: remain in the area for a week until Simon (fingers crossed) forgives her at his upcoming Labor Day bash. She’s also trying to escape the clutches of an ex who is dunning her for the money she stole from him.
Alex reminds me of Big Blonde, the character in one of Dorothy Parker’s most memorable short stories. She’s a grifter, all right, but a nice grifter—which she demonstrates in her encounters with bratty Hamptons kids, spoiled-rotten teenagers, and local service people. It’s impossible to be mad at her: instead, you just feel an overwhelming sorrow at this lovely but lonely young woman.
Cline has said that as a Northern Californian, she was shocked to find the air of exclusivity she encountered in the Hamptons—i.e., either you’re an insider or you’re an outsider. Not hard to see which Alex is. And even though I’m hardly an expert on the Hamptons, what Cline has written in “The Guest” seems to ring true. An irresistible guilty pleasure.
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