beach read book club

Who Can Really See Alex?

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.

Welcome to the second installment of Beach Read Book ClubToday, we’re discussing chapters four through six of The Guest, including how Alex’s pill addiction changes our understanding of the narrative, the encounter with Nicholas, and that extremely tense afternoon at the beach club. (If you need to catch up with part one, click here.)

What did everyone make of Alex’s night at the party share house?

Allison P. Davis: That frat-house thing? Ew. That was the time that I was like, I don’t even trust you as a grifter or a scammer. She infiltrated this group of young, dumb Turtle Bay–living people, but she couldn’t sustain it. If that’s the first level of the game and you fuck it up that quickly, I don’t have a lot of faith in your ability to get through the next six days.

Alison Willmore: I thought it was so interesting when she initiates sex with the guy she crashed with on the sofa. It’s unclear if this is happening because she wants to have sex or because she thinks that it will help her stay — it actually has the opposite effect. Alex doesn’t seem to know herself. It’s almost this instinct that she has in that situation.

Like Allison said, I was immediately like, Oh, maybe she’s not that good at this and maybe she’s not even trying hard anymore. There is this sense of exhaustion that ends each episode, as if she can’t be bothered to do the adaptation that she knows is required of her to keep things stable.

Matthew Schneier: I sort of disagree. I thought it was kind of canny, the way that she played it. Obviously, it doesn’t work out in this scenario, but she does have this toolkit and she games every situation. I think in that moment of getting caught basically stealing from someone’s wallet, that is the closest tool at hand. The book dares us to be shocked or appalled but Alex isn’t really shocked or appalled — she says, I’ve done this before I’ll do it again and it even kind of feels good if you dissociate, so why not? Not that that’s a stance you’d necessarily want to validate or valorize.

This is a very CBT book, I felt: you just have to keep making decisions, and whether or not they’re the right decisions, or whether or not you can know the outcome, all there really is available to you is not to ruminate and think about it too much. She makes a bet and it’s the wrong bet, but she’s not that worked up about it either. She’s never gonna see them again either way, she’s not arrested. She hurt some girl’s feelings, and then she wanders on.

Brock Colyar: She’s really good at using sex as a weapon.

Alison W.: But she also breaks the rules she sets for herself: Don’t take something. Don’t steal yet. And then she does it anyway. She wants to see what might happen.

By this point, Alex’s pill addiction is pretty clear. How does that change experiencing the book through her point of view?

Emily Gould: It’s always a great device to add tension to give a character a pill addiction. It’s just so quantifiable. Like, Okay, what do we have left in our purse?

If I was teaching this book to undergraduates, I would make them do a little exercise where they isolate every incident that Alex counts how many pills she has, or takes pills, or steals pills, and then chart it against other factors in terms of what strata of the beach environment she’s sunk to.

In this section, we have the scene with Nicholas, the employee of George. Nicholas sees through her in a way that other people might not. Why do you think he was more onto her?

Matthew: She makes the point that the people who can see her for who she is are essentially her comrades in the serving class — she’s embarrassed when she makes eye contact with the waitress, there’s Nicholas the house manager, and Lori the personal assistant. I like those people popping up as these road-not-taken analogues. I don’t know if that’s a particularly desirable career path, but she might have done that had she not instinctively played with fire. I wonder if the book’s contention is that there are only two ways to be in the world — there are these Übermensches and untermensches, and within the untermensch class, you can be basically a servant or a chaotic sex doll.

Brock: I really enjoyed the description of Nicholas. There’s a whole class of TikTok that is private chefs in the Hamptons, which I’m kind of addicted to. It’s funny to see those similarities, because these chefs on TikTok are always trying to prove how nice their life is and how nice the people they work for are and how they eat lunch with them and they have these beautiful quarters and all of that.

Alison W.: It’s funny that Alex also keeps trying to get the young husband — and now Nicholas — to say that they hate the people that they’re with or working for, and no one will do it. They’re all transactional relationships. The funny thing about how Nicholas is presented is that he’s got this job, but what she focuses on are all of the ways in which he needs to smooth that relationship and not act like he’s working for them. He has to make it seem like he’s a friend who happens to do whatever you need whenever you need it.

You can understand why she wouldn’t want one of these jobs: Nicholas lives in that grim apartment by the garage, Lori spends hours looking for ticks on Simon’s dog. None of these jobs seems especially desirable if you can just be the girl who goes to the beach every day and then comes back and dips in the pool and has a nice dinner. That seems like a more fun route, even if it comes with its own enormous cost.

Allison D: There was something interesting about the power of those people to dispose of her just as much as anyone else can. Even though she pokes at them and tries to dismantle their understanding of their own position in this world, ultimately, she’s the most disposable one, the least powerful one in any of these circles, whether or not she can wield sex. Even Victor, the hot husband in the pool — he knows how to secure his bag, and that’s by serving that pussy. Even he is better at blending in. I thought it was an interesting tool of degradation, that all of these people that are technically below her are more powerful.

Alison W.: They never ally themselves with her. As soon as it comes time, they’re like, no, my rich boss or wife — that’s who I’m sticking with.

Allison D.: Also, wouldn’t she have tried to befriend anyone’s other girlfriend? Or is there no other girlfriend of other rich Simon that she could have linked arms with? Is it all for one and one for all when you’re a Hampton sugar baby?

Matthew: She’s too messy for that. Maybe this goes back to the pills, but I think anyone can smell the desperation and chaos on her. Maybe these other sugar babies are what she would be if she wasn’t constantly on a low dose of Klonopin or whatever.

Let’s talk about her day at the beach club, which ties a lot of these threads together … with some light kidnapping. 

Alison W.: That was the sequence that was the most tense to me. What is going to happen to this child?

Allison D.: Same. That child, I was like, He’s drowning, he’s running into the parking lot, he’s choking on ice cream — I don’t know, I thought that was it. He was dead.

Matthew: That was the episode that was weakest to me. I understand being chaotic and taking undue risks, but that was where I was like, There is no upside to thisIt is just pure danger. And I guess she gets away with it, so maybe Alex is right and I’m wrong. What do they say in entertainment? Never work with kids or dogs. That just feels like the bridge too far for me.

Emily: I agree.

Brock: I like what she says in the bathroom though when she’s stealing the barrette and the $50s, something like, “People are okay with being victimized in small doses.” That’s what she thinks she’s getting away with here, that’s why she thinks it’s gonna work out.

Alison W.: It’s maybe the best section that deals with the point that’s made early on about there being so little suspicion out there in terms of stuff, because everyone is assumed to come from either the background of Simon or work for them. So there are different rules with regard to how a child being escorted away from his nanny might be treated, since everyone assumes a layer of safety.

Her going to the beach club at all was the most why are you doing this? choice. She even acknowledges it doesn’t make sense, that she should stay in town, that she should get her phone fixed. Instead, she wanders off on an impulse.

Allison D.: I’m glad you said that Alison because I was like, Are all these rich people so stupid? If I was at the beach club and someone was trying to use my card, I’d be like, I don’t have enough money for that. But you can be a beautiful dumb richie.

Alison W.: I have spent very little time out in the Hamptons, but the first time I did when I was 24, 25, it was to go to some fancy fundraising party with a friend. Afterward we ended up at one of the children’s impulse parties up at their house, which had the barn set up as a party space, and my friend and I slept in beds that were set up in the hayloft just for people who wanted to crash. In the morning, I got a ride to the Jitney from the hot personal chef. It’s funny to see all this from the perspective of someone actually trying to gamify it.

Allison D.: Now I’m sure that people are squatting in unused Hamptons houses all the time. You see a house for sale, someone’s probably squatting in the basement.

Alison W.: Also it seems like if you can get to a party, everyone’s like, “You must be a friend of someone, you can just crash here in our 18 free beds that we have lying around.”

Brock: They should have a Survivor TV show where they just drop a bunch of people in the Hamptons. I appreciated in these first six chapters all the subtle ways that it’s actually described as a super hostile environment: The roads are curvy, there’s ticks, there’s no cell service, the Wi-Fi sucks.

Allison D.: It really is like Naked and Afraid, Hamptons edition.

Last week, we asked you about your impressions of Alex, the party at Helen’s, and other cultural products this book reminded you of, and you sent us a lot of really great thoughts and observations! Here are some of them.

What was your initial impression of Alex? Did she remind you of anyone?

It’s obvious that something is off about her from the very beginning. She doesn’t pause long enough to feel anything; her focus is always on getting through, or over, whatever bad situation she has found herself in. She doesn’t do this in a calculated way, though; it’s more of a chaotic, frenzied flailing where she thrashes her way toward her goal. She’s kind of a garbage person. It’s not surprising that she believes there is an aura of stink surrounding her. What goes in must come out. —Kate

Alex reminded me of many people I knew when young who were drifting or trying to figure things out. But, the difference between her and someone who is going to get her act together eventually is that she won’t. The “tell” is how people drop her. She is bad news, and once people know this, they’re done with her — a really bad sign, but familiar. She seems smoother than this person, but she brought to mind Danielle Miller (the Swiffer girl) and her former friends’ assessment of her in that New York Magazine piece. —Stephanie

She’s a funny mix of worldly and idiotic. She seems only able to keep one thing in her mind at a time. Only able to deal with what is immediately in front of her. It made me want to know more about her background, but she dismisses the idea that there’s been major trauma in her life. That is hard to believe, but fits in with the way she has narrowed her world to immediate survival — to just: What is the next thing I need to do for food and shelter? —Bonny

I feel a disconnect from her. I don’t like her. I don’t hate her. But she’s not an engaging lead, I feel no kinship with her — which makes it interesting to read the book through her voice. How reliable is she as a narrator? Is anything as good or as bad as she portrays it? —Caitlin

I know age is just a number, but I also keep thinking, Wow, she is *so* 22. —Michelle

How did you react to the disastrous party at Helen’s house?

I was, of course, thinking, Nooooooo! Don’t … Why? For one main reason — Simon’s a soulless rich a-hole, but Dom is dangerous (although I agree we’re only getting Alex’s side of that story, but it doesn’t matter — trust me, he’s dangerous). All I’m thinking about for Alex right now is survival (y’know, food and shelter) and safety. Hard to move on to better without those as a start. —Robert

Oy vey. This was so cringey (as is so much of the book, really). Her choice to not go to Simon but to “drift into the husband’s orbit” was phenomenally stupid (and childish, because she’s essentially a child). The irony that she didn’t join Simon because she didn’t want him to see her “riled up like this … Making bad choices,” but then made that extremely dumb decision … sigh. But I could also understand and appreciate her near need to fuck up that party — it seemed absolutely insufferable. —Sam

She embarrasses Simon, which we see from Simon’s reaction, but what is fascinating about this scene is that Victor is let off the hook (as far as we know). Perhaps it’s this moment that causes Simon to wonder what else Alex does when he isn’t looking. If she’s supposed to be a reflection of him, especially since he essentially dresses her, then her antics made him look like a fool. As much as Alex seems to need to hang on to the arrangement with Simon, she’s careless about pressing her luck. It’s a game to her, and she plays it poorly. —Kate

I was not surprised at Simon’s reaction. To him, Alex is meant to be seen and not heard, so when she broke out of her role as an accessory/piece of furniture, it also broke the terms and conditions that permitted her presence around Simon and others like him. I also thought maybe it seemed childish, to jump in the pool, and Simon bristled because he had to remember Alex is probably the same age (or younger?) than his daughter. —Michelle

Did these early chapters bring to mind any other books, movies, or shows for you?

This story vaguely reminded me of Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” where the main character is delusional enough to create a reality that doesn’t exist. It seems to be a survival mechanism for Alex. —Donna

Alex reminds me of Tom Ripley from Anthony Minghella’s film The Talented Mr. Ripley. Like Tom, she’s got that nameless, faceless thing going on that allows her to slip into situations where people trust her. The anonymity. Like Tom, she weaponizes that trust, but not as carefully as he does. I’d be interested in reading the Patricia Highsmith novel the film is based on to see where the novels parallel one another. Also got Black Mirror vibes. —Victoria

I couldn’t stop thinking of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the similarities of Alex and Holly Golightly. Even the character of Victor, Helen’s younger husband and kindred spirit of Alex, who ultimately leads her to her banishment, could be compared to the lonely young writer/George Peppard as Paul in the film, who is also kept by an older woman. Like Cline in the The Guest, Capote never comes out and says that Holly Golightly is a sex worker but states that she does go on dates to collect powder-room-tip money. —Michael

I’m reminded of the kleptomaniac Sasha from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I felt similarly anxious reading about her exploits. I also think of the self-conscious, chilly distance of Frances in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends — especially since Frances and her best friend, Bobbi, also tag along as very young women with older adults. When they go on vacation with their older friends, Frances seems to experience some of the same emotions that Alex does in the Hamptons: disposability, awkwardness, curiosity, and apathy. —Annie

Beach Read Book Club is moderated by Kaitlin Jessing-Butz and Jasmine Vojdani. Share your burning theories, questions, and rants down in the comments — we’ll share a selection of them in our next newsletter. 

Who Can Really See Alex?