Emma Cline, The Guest (Random House), 304pp. Hardback, $28.00.

Emma Cline is drawn to toxic masculinity. Her debut novel, The Girls (for which she reportedly received a $2 million advance), depicted an ultimately murderous California commune modeled on the Manson family, and her recent short fiction has targeted figures including Harvey Weinstein and Wim Hof. But she is less interested in the psyches of the bad boys than she is in the young women who get caught in their wake. Will they continue to tether their orbits to powerful men, or will they launch into their own trajectories?

Evie, the teenage narrator-protagonist of The Girls, is less interested in the charismatic cult leader Russell than she is in Suzanne, arguably the real leader of “the ranch.” At the end of the novel Suzanne goes to prison while Evie escapes both the ranch and the law, winding up at a fancy boarding school in Carmel. But it’s unclear whether Evie is the real victor here: “Suzanne got the redemption that followed a conviction, the prison Bible groups and prime-time interviews and a mail-in college degree. I got the snuffed-out story of the bystander, a fugitive without a crime, half hoping and half terrified that no one was ever coming for me.”

Evie’s privileged plight is typical of the young women featured in Cline’s marvelous output of short fiction over the past ten years. Daddy, a collection of stories published in 2020 (which was a more impressive work than The Girls but received less fanfare), summons the spirit of Sylvia Plath but gives it a Joni Mitchell twist: You’re a mean old daddy, but I like you.

Of the ten stories in Daddy, the strongest is “The Nanny,” which was originally published in The Paris Review in 2019. Here a young woman, Kayla, is hired by Jessica and her movie star husband, Rafe, to be a full-time nanny for their son. But Kayla begins sleeping with Rafe, and the tabloids expose the affair—briefly conferring celebrity status upon Kayla. Kayla seems not to feel any remorse as a homewrecker—and why should she? Perhaps she’s the real victim here, coerced into sex by her rich and famous employer. At the end of the story, staying with a friend to avoid the frenzying paparazzi, she scoffs at the notion that she should be learning a lesson and imagines that her own star is ascending: “Maybe there was a photographer, hidden out there in the darkness, someone who’d been watching her, who’d followed her here, someone who had waited, patiently, for her to appear.”

* * *

Alex, the 22-year-old protagonist of The Guest, is a more mature version of Kayla. The novel scrupulously avoids labels like “sex worker” or “prostitute,” but Alex is very aggressively in the business of attaching herself to older men with money for casual flings that will result in cash and gifts. She is a liar and a thief—but she has convinced herself that her lies and thefts are part of a larger game in which all the actors are complicit. Her own sense of identity flickers among alternatives; she prefers to make herself into whatever another person will find most desirable.

If you want a sense of the vibe of “The Guest,” imagine Aubrey Plaza starring in a new film adaptation of John Cheever’s classic 1964 short story “The Swimmer.”

Trying to make ends meet in New York City, she’s down on her luck—teetering on the brink of destitution, despite her designer clothes—when she hooks up with Simon, a wealthy man in his fifties who takes their relationship seriously enough to invite her to his beach house on Long Island for all of August. When Alex makes a fool of herself at a party near the end of the month, Simon breaks things off, but Alex can’t really return to the city—she’s burned all her bridges and has nowhere left to go. Imagining that she could be reconciled with Simon at his Labor Day party, Alex takes a week to wander the wealthiest parts of Long Island, hopping from house to house by pretending that she belongs there, always a friend of a friend. It mostly works.

The book plays with Alex’s mysterious background and adaptable personality (the narration is third-person but focalized through Alex), yet it retains a very cinematic quality. It’s not hard to imagine Alex as a character on White Lotus—perhaps one of those Italian girls from the second season. In fact, if you want a sense of the vibe of The Guest, imagine Aubrey Plaza starring in a new film adaptation of John Cheever’s classic 1964 short story “The Swimmer.” (Like Cheever’s Neddy, Cline’s Alex seems obsessed with swimming in other people’s pools. She also flirts with the idea that she is some kind of ghost.)

Cline’s fine sense of humor—Brandon Taylor has praised her “withering deadpan”—is on display in the descriptions of the moneyed elite and their properties. The residents of these beachside mansions are “tanned to the color of expensive luggage”; they eat at “restaurants that only served steak, pink but flavorless and thick as a hardcover book.” Simon “listened to summaries of famous self-help books while he exercised with giant ropes.”

In other words, “These were the type of people who assumed that there were rules, who believed that if they followed them they would one day be rewarded,” writes Cline. “And here was Alex, naked in their pool.”

Needless to say, Alex’s house-hopping scheme starts to unravel. While she arguably starts the novel as a victim of circumstance, her character becomes harder to defend by the time she has sex with a troubled 17-year-old boy. She’s the kind of person who’s always somehow ruining everything. But Alex’s real problem (a good one for a novel’s protagonist) is that she is too perceptive; so attentively conscious about what others must think of her, she constantly worries that everyone else sees what she really is, an actress playing a role rather than the genuine article—a knockoff of a leisure-class elite. As the paranoia kicks in, her skill for reading people starts to deteriorate. Miscalculations accumulate.

Alex’s most intriguing trait is her skepticism of families. With no real family of her own, she only sees other individuals. “Love” is clearly a sham, and she only has scorn for those who behave “as if love were something you deserved and didn’t have to scramble to earn.” Alex isn’t exactly greedy, but she so badly wants the trappings of wealth. And she knows that she can have them, if only as a guest.

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