Great Exploitations

REVIEW: ‘The Guest: A Novel’ by Emma Cline

Emma Cline
July 9, 2023

Beautiful, disgruntled housewives or girlfriends of rich men are treasured in American literature, from Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. In fact, the appetite for tales of these types of women is so avid that it’s hard to mess them up. But in The Guest, Emma Cline manages to offer a heroine (anti-heroine?) so unremarkable, so devoid of charm, it’s almost an achievement in and of itself.

And maybe that’s the point.

The Guest tells the story of 22-year-old Alex, the high-end escort turned live-in girlfriend of Simon, an older, wealthy executive with a penchant for stability and routine. It’s summer in what appears to be the Hamptons, and Alex’s listless days are filled with beach trips and painkillers, until she commits a faux pas at a dinner party and is abruptly ejected from Simon’s manicured mansion and life.

From there, the novel oscillates between upstairs/downstairs-style narrative to grifter account, only half-heartedly accomplishing either. That may be intentional, the novel coyly suggests a few times, but is it a cop-out on the part of the author? Either way, it’s debatable if the novel is intriguing enough to make the exercise worth it.

Part of the lack of personality stems from Alex’s former life as an escort. She explains that the key to client cultivation is subduing her own quirks and turning herself into a blank slate onto which potential patrons can project their own fantasies. She defaults to these skills to survive in the Hamptons once Simon kicks her out, closely observing those around her—from entitled homeowners and their apathetic children to the butlers, gardeners, and nannies who make their fiefdoms run—to procure food, shelter, and electricity to power her dysfunctional mobile phone.

There’s a metaphor being constructed here, one meant to lecture readers about class and privilege. America has turned people at the bottom of the economic ladder into products to be consumed by greedy consumers at the top. Alex articulates this point most successfully in her commentary on 21st-century art collection. She notes that "sometimes the work was a mere idea of the work, existing only as an image emailed back and forth, collectors reselling a piece they bought before they even ever saw it in person."

Cribbing from postmodern theory, she convincingly emphasizes the primacy of marketing, advertising, and hype over a painting’s inherent value—defined, perhaps, by the spiritual toil that went into producing it, and its degree of participation in God’s creation—and compares this to how sex work functions. The hyperreality generated by advertising, she seems to say, commodifies the most beautiful and transcendent parts of life—art and sex—rendering them into the transactional byproducts of shrewd power brokering.

To Cline’s credit, Alex is complicated enough that this lecture comes across as less annoying than it would otherwise be: she’s not just an avatar of woke moralizing. She’s flawed insofar as she’s too self-absorbed to recognize her own contribution to the chaos and excess she condemns, giving herself a pass for what she seems to think is the inherent virtue of being essentially homeless. She inconveniences the working class with whom she supposedly sympathizes, while violating the affluent to degrees beyond what they deserve for their supposed crimes of privilege.

In this way, the novel is reminiscent of HBO’s White Lotus, to which other reviews have compared it. The popular series is notable for casting a critical eye not just on wealthy patrons of the titular resort, but on the flawed men and women who help run it, and everyone in between.

Then again, aside from the contradiction of being both class-conscious and self-absorbed, Alex isn’t that complicated after all. The plot goes out of its way to deny readers any indication of Alex’s background: where she’s from, why she became an escort, or what her future goals might be. This blank-slate anonymity is part of the larger argument the novel is trying to construct—but at what cost? There’s no personality for readers to latch onto, just a portrait of a woman reduced to survival mode, with a keen instinct for social observation.

It's interesting that female protagonists in these types of tales are becoming more and more wan and detached from familial and romantic connection. They also keep straying farther from the traditional female plot, that of marriage and reproduction. (Even Edna had a husband and children!) Feminists will celebrate this as some type of victory for liberation, however flawed. But it makes for a boring, sad story of a single woman that reinforces the categories of a sterile, vapid, materialistic world, where the only fertile force is debt, which seems to multiply.

The Guest is not a remarkable novel—and that’s by design. Those who enjoyed the sparklingly offbeat accounts of other female scammers—like Anna Delvey, Caroline Calloway, and Sarma Melngailis—may enjoy it. But be warned that the book has been stripped of the glitter and peculiarities that made those other women memorable—all in the service of spinning a yarn into a parable.

The Guest: A Novel
by Emma Cline
Random House, 304 pp., $28

Nora Kenney is director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.

Published under: Book reviews