beach read book club

Does Alex Genuinely Care for Anyone?

Photo: Hugo Yu

This discussion originally appeared in Beach Read Book Club, a limited-run newsletter where New York staff discuss the season’s buzziest books alongside our readers. Sign up here.

When Alex goes to Margaret’s house, it’s one of the rare times where we see her successfully manipulate another woman. What did the exchange between them reveal about either character?

Alison Willmore: It made me think of what she says about Simon’s daughter, where you can have all of this money, but you can’t buy beauty for yourself. Alex is aware in that situation that she does have one thing over this girl, this knowledge of how to present yourself to be seen as beautiful. It felt that her having that tiny bit of power, comparatively, was her in to working that relationship. The way she talks about what Margaret looks like and putting the makeup on her is so precise and pointed.

Brock Colyar: I feel like she’s proven to herself that she’s really good at gaming, or just being judgmental about, older men. But then the situation with Margaret proves that she’s just as good at reading other kinds of lost young women.

The teens in these chapters are so insufferable. I felt sorry for them the first time I read the book. And then the second time, I decided that it’s their parents’ fault for making them this way and I felt less sorry for them.

Allison P. Davis: The one thing I kept thinking with Margaret was that Alex will be a short story in her life forever. This might be her college admission essay, the random woman who came into my home and did my makeup. I’m just so aware of how disposable Alex is in this world and to all these people — even to Margaret, who will ultimately be fine in the world after Alex is gone — that I can’t give Alex credit for the power she does have over people, because I know ultimately it’s such a false power.

So I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, where Margaret would realize what a weirdo Alex is, or she would smell the actual scent of her, or realize she was fucked up on pills and be like, Who is this weirdo? Get out of my house. It never happened, but it could have so easily, which is to say that I know she’s an unreliable narrator, but I’m not really sure what to make of her skill set.

Alison W.: All of the children of the wealthy we see are an interesting category unto themselves. They do feel like they have less power, and they’re kind of neglected by the parents, but then you’re always aware that they are going to grow up into some version of their parents, that they do have this immense foundation that they’re standing on.

Emily Gould: I guess chapter seven reminded me of — this is not a thing that happens in my life very often — when I was at the giant beach house of a rich person and wanted to throw a Kind bar wrapper away and was like, Where’s the trash? And my hostess, who is analogous to a Margaret type of person, literally did not know.

In this encounter with Margaret, Alex has so much power, but she’s also unnerved by it, and by Margaret in some way. Why do you think Margaret kind of freaks her out?

Matthew Schneier: I suspect she intuits on some level that Margaret’s slightly horny desperation is just the mirror-face version of her own. Margaret is less attractive than Alex, but I think you’re supposed to make the connection between her dolling up this younger girl who’s trying to find her way in the world, even though her world is gilded. Alex is so patronizing and so horrified by Margaret’s neediness, but ultimately it’s not so dissimilar from what she gets from all of these benefactors of her own.

The children are really interesting in this whole book. One, because the adults are also children — it seems to suggest that in this tax bracket, you’re never aged out of childhood. There’s that sort of throwaway Lori line that’s not throwaway — I don’t know if she specifically says that Simon’s a child, but she certainly says he’d starve to death without me. It really underscores that Alex really doesn’t have a family. She’s truly unnetworked in a way — there is something so sad about that. It’s easy to feel bad for Margaret, but I agree with Allison: However bad you feel for any of these other characters, it rebounds back to feeling bad for Alex.

Alison W.: She has this moment in the scene with Margaret where she considers making a move, just to see if she could. She sits next to her, closer on the bed. But it is this moment where she doesn’t know what to do with having even this tiny bit of power. It feels like an early setup for the same dynamic later on, of her being like, I do have something I can dothis one means in which I can flex over you.

Let’s talk about the scene where Jack goes to the restaurant with Alex and his dad. How did you feel about this tense moment? Who was worse behaved of the two?

Matthew: I think the kid ultimately, right? You’re supposed to think the father’s worse because he knows better, and the kid is trying to hold on to whatever spark of individuality and self-possession before he’s crammed into this cookie-cutter mold. But ultimately, he’s a dick in the way teenage boys are dicks. Obviously, Alex is thinking the better play here is Dad. She can’t quite work it out. She’s not wrong to be like, This makes more sense in a different kind of permutation. She’s like, How can I maximize my advantage?

Allison D.: That whole scene I was wondering, What are we supposed to take away from this interaction for Alex? I kept waiting for her to try and trade up and be like, Oh shit, I have the wrong mark, let me go for Jack’s dad now because he’s the one that I should be on the arm of. But then when it all didn’t pan out that way and we met the other escort, I couldn’t figure out what that interaction was for.

Alison W.: It was one of the scenes that worked the least for me, but my main takeaway is that Jack sends up so many red flags that Alex ignores. He’s very clearly acting childish — and he’s told her he’s 19, right? Not that a 19-year-old can’t also be like, I hate you, Dad, but in this scene in particular he’s acting so, so young and she is ignoring that and trying to parse the dad more.

Matthew: I think that whole scene exists so that she can run into this other girl, Dana, in the bathroom and turn up the pressure — Don’t forget about the other B-plot that’s the ticking time bomb in the background. I do like the suggestion that they’re parallel orbitals ending up in the same places. They’re all fake friends, but they’re actually competitors and sort of at war with each other. It’s kind of bleak, because you could imagine a completely different version of this novel where it’s like, Lysistrata meets labor politics, and all of these sugar babies unionize and team up to get the man. That’s not this; she’s never going to make a real friend in this game.

Alison W.: It’s interesting that you saw that as competition. I just saw it as, she probably stole stuff and did something terrible to Dana that she’s wiped from her own mental record. It’s implied that they were doing that, and they were friends back in New York. Whatever causes the split between them, it feels like yet another one of those bridge-burning moments where Alex is like, I don’t know what happened between usWhy doesn’t this person talk to me anymore?

Allison D.: I don’t know if you guys have been to Casa Cipriani, this members-only hotel on South Street. I was there at seven o’clock recently, at the bar, and I’m looking around and I was like, Oh, this is just one of those places that people know to go to meet someone. I found it very interesting, the kinds of men that would approach a specific kind of woman, and the looks and the vetting. I was like, Damn, everywhere I’m going, there’s just a different language being spoken between men and women and the staff and somebody’s navigating such a tricky labyrinth of, Am I going to get kicked out? Am I gonna get taken home? I wish that there had been a touch more of that, especially at these Hamptons parties — Alex is clearly not the only one. It reflects so much about how she’s learned to game a system, but how destabilizing that whole system is at any given point.

Alison W.: It’s Dana who has the guide to spotting other girls, which I loved: This type of dress. This type of makeup, this is how you can tell that someone’s on the climb.

Yeah, “girls in drag as girls.”

Allison D.: Love that line.

Emily: There was another line from this part that stood out to me — because it was one of the few moments where you get her thinking clearly — about how she wanted some kind of intimacy with Dana because she wanted someone to compare notes with and fill in the blanks. She doesn’t have anyone to keep track of her life with.

Brock: Yeah, I found myself wondering what the fuck happened between you two? And at the same time — and this probably doesn’t reflect well on me — thinking about a friend that I had three years ago and we exploded, and I currently have no idea why we’re not friends anymore.

I was reading the book as Alex on this journey, trying to stay here to get back to this man. But Dana bringing up Dom freaks her out so much that I read the rest of the book as Alex on this journey for the sole purpose of avoiding Dom, and that something darker happened between them than is revealed.

This interaction with Dana made me wonder: Does Alex genuinely care for anyone?

Allison D.: I don’t think so.

Alison W.: She doesn’t even really care for herself. She spends this whole book in almost willful dissociation. She’s pushed away so much of the past out of at least the narration, she’s pushed away so much of what she’s actually feeling.

I’m curious if anyone else felt this: One of the emotions that she’s not acknowledging, but that keeps coming out in her actions, is anger. She does things that are actually pretty destructive, like scratching the painting on impulse — things where it feels like one of those emotions that she has tamped down is actually rage at a lot of the people that she has to constantly accommodate.

Brock: I think that comes out, because she’s also always talking about forcing herself to smile.

Emily: There’s that moment when she’s still responsible for the kid and loses track of him and has a flash of imagining him at the bottom of the pool and feels a surge of crisis adrenaline. I don’t know if that counts as caring about other people; it might just be like, I don’t want the consequences that would ensue if that were to happen. But it almost felt to me like a human, protective impulse toward a child. That’s as close as we get to her having empathy or compassion.

Brock: I think she says several times she feels something almost like love.

Here’s a sampling of your very thoughtful responses to last week’s questions!

Does the night Alex spends alone in the dunes seem to be more or less dangerous than most situations she puts herself in with other people?

I was the least tense reading this section. Because Alex was alone, I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Is she going to steal something? Is she going to get caught? What crazy ass decision is she going to make next?” Those questions were largely out of my mind, and I relaxed a bit. I wasn’t really worried about something happening to her in the dunes even though that is, on paper, the most dangerous environment in which we saw her. This could also be due to the fact that I didn’t like Alex, so if something had happened to her, I don’t know that I would’ve been that upset … —Sam

Alex’s night on the beach seems more frightening to her than the situations with others throughout — she’s now completely alone and in her head, without anyone else to manipulate or fall back on. In reality, it’s probably the safest she could be (other than facing the potential appearance of Dom). —Cheryl

Honestly, that was the one night I felt less anxious about her surroundings. She didn’t have to be “on” or manipulating herself or people. I feel like she’s one misstep away from death and destruction — likely at her own hand.  Her miscalculations are getting more often and more significant. —Caitlin

She is much safer on the beach than with any of these strange men. I sort of wanted her to reach a new kind of peace or gain some clarity/healing about a better path forward, but that would have been out of character. She stumbled through it numb as she is. —Kathleen

’What did you take away about Alex’s manipulation powers from the section at the beach club?
I found the section at the beach club to be illustrative of how whiteness and its perceived docility can permeate the gates of wealth and class at ease. Throughout the scene, Alex doesn’t have to do much other than flatten herself to her surroundings to become fluid, to leech, to exploit. Alex’s powers of manipulation come not from an aptitude in obscuring her identity. It’s quite the opposite. Instead of a disguise, she offers herself — a blank canvas of a girl — and allows her surrounding environment to assume how she might fit in their world. —Brendon 

I found myself surprised at how gentle and playful she seemed to be with Calvin. I could envision some alternate timeline where Alex is a better-adjusted, kind nanny type. As far as scamming a meal, that seems like the least bad thing so far. —thebestchris

There is really no one she can’t manipulate — from moms to kids to bartenders. People see what they want to see and she does have an innate ability to tap into that and use it to her advantage and usually their detriment. Also, I am still basically reading this at a steady terror waiting to see what’s next. First I thought she was gonna accidentally kill that little boy. —Caitlin

The scene at the beach club adds to her characterization as manipulative yet sloppy and clueless. Alex initially fits in — she is young, white, and attractive enough to look like she belongs there. I even found it believable that she would convince a nanny that she was a “safe” acquaintance of the family of the child she befriends; after all, Alex has already seen and used her opening in the implicit trust that allows her to lift pills, money, and trinkets from unsuspecting wealthy people who casually leave their belongings around. She passes as an insider at the pool, cooling off and enjoying the atmosphere, but at this point, the reader is on to her, waiting to see how she is going to ruin it for herself. And ruin it she does, behaving a bit too recklessly and charging one too many beers to someone else’s tab, unwittingly making it clear to the bartender that she does not belong. What misadventure awaits her next? —Donna

This seemed more about the apathetic blindness of the community itself than of Alex’s ability to fool people. The only person who appeared to question her presence was the nanny, and this could simply be due to the fact that it’s her job to keep the children safe. The nannies are the only ones paying attention to the world around them. —Sam

Beach Read Book Club is moderated by Kaitlin Jessing-Butz and Jasmine Vojdani. Share your burning theories, questions, and rants down in the comments. 

Does Alex Genuinely Care for Anyone?