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.
We’ve reached the final installment of Beach Read Book Club. Today, we’re discussing chapters nine through 11 of The Guest and asking: What the hell did that ending mean? (If you need to catch up, here are parts one, two, and three.)
Let’s talk about Jack and the whole stay at his ex-girlfriend’s house. Alex realizes little by little that he’s not a mentally well person — he’s on meds, Alex gets hints about something that happened with an ex-girlfriend but doesn’t know what, he’s out of school for some reason. What was the reading experience like for you during those scenes?
Allison P. Davis: Ugh, I can’t even use words. I felt so gross the whole time, just thinking about his teenage-boy acne. It was like, God, the level of desperation she’s experiencing to attach herself sexually and financially to a braces-ed teenager with bacne. If she were not so drugged out or let any thoughts in … she must just be blocking out a whole lot of I want to peel my skin off. How have I followed this far? But you got to give it to her for the level of trying to survive — I do respect that.
Emily Gould: In a way, he’s perfect for her. He’s the easiest mark imaginable, he’s super-vulnerable, completely at her mercy after she leaves him. He’s ready to commit suicide because he’s so unstable. She can totally relax around someone who is more fucked up than she is. That’s what makes him appealing, that he’ll let her do stuff, like pop his fucking bac … oh my God, I can’t even say the word bacne.
Allison D.: There’s always a hidden rom-com in every thriller. Is this the rom-com, guys? The real love story is Jack and Alex?
Emily Gould: I can see the trailer for that part of the movie, staring into each other’s eyes.
Matthew Schneier: I don’t know, I found it kind of moving. Am I such a simp? They’re these two extremely damaged people, and they’re the only people in this kind of adamantine world of the Hamptons that can’t hack it. And he obviously sucks, but she kind of sucks. Even if it’s a terrible idea, even though you can see that she’s sowing the seeds of her own destruction, and even though there was a better way to do this that she doesn’t choose, it would be hard to imagine a barrel with more fish in it to shoot than the Hamptons. If she had just made it to town, or stayed in town, there’s a thousand Simons. But instead, she kind of goes down the social ladder, at least in terms of appropriateness, until her fate is sealed.
That is her Greek-tragic flaw — she just can’t do the semi-sensible thing. But since we know that she’s going to crash and burn, I almost liked that she has this disgusting honeymoon at the end.
Allison D.: It’s interesting you say that because I forgot that she met Simon in a moment of pre-desperation anyway. She had all these bad tricks where she was in danger, where she was being left out at JFK and not getting paid, where she got scammed. By the time she met Simon, she was already unable to keep it together.
You’re right, Matthew: In a way, it is sort of romantic, her descent into this final pit of This is the one person that I can relax with. Even if she had found another Simon in the Hamptons, even if Nicholas would let her stay, there’s no way she could maintain the level of perfection and artifice and masks that she would need to remain in these pockets of the world for even six days. So it is sort of nice that she found a moment of, finally, I can just be a pilled-out pimple popper. Is that what love is, guys?
Matthew: I’m surprised that everyone’s so grossed out by the pimple popping — I don’t personally get into it, but I feel like I’ve heard of a lot of couples that do that.
Emily: I don’t do it, but I watch TikToks of it and I find them really soothing.
Matthew: Isn’t Dr. Pimple Popper the reason the Discovery-Warner Brothers merger happened?
Brock Colyar: There’s something about Jack to me that’s also the easiest stock character: He is the sad boy who reads Siddhartha. There’s this situation with the ex-girlfriend where it seems like she probably broke up with him and he was the 17-year-old that half-ass-threatened to kill himself over it. He’s the nice boy who’s not actually that nice, who hides all of his toxic masculinity or whatever behind his passive persona.
Alison W.: Yeah, I kept thinking of him in the context of Margaret, but also the kid she picks up at the beach club. He is just the grown-up version of her — like the ten-years-on version of that kid, really. He’s still kind of the weakest animal in the herd. If she’s looking for prey out there, he is an easy target. That whole sequence, it feels like someone is pretending that they are not with a child. It’s interesting in comparison with – who’s the townie friend, Max? You have a kid who is presumably the same age who sees through everything immediately. If Jack feels like he’s grown up in a terrarium or something, just still very coddled, his friend is instantly very world-wary.
Did any of you believe that Jack was really gonna raid his dad’s safe for her?
Alison W.: I thought he would try and get caught immediately. I did not expect that It was entirely made up.
Brock: I do think the safe exists.
Allison D.: I didn’t think the safe existed. I think that no grown person keeps their money in a safe like it’s Indiana Jones.
Alison W.: The detail about the gold — I was like, The safe is real, though. That’s the kind of guy who would be like, “No I need to have gold bars because currency will crash.”
Allison D.: So wait, you think that the safe was real but he changed his mind about wanting to do it? And that was because he’s a little coward or … ?
Brock: A little bitch boy.
Allison D.: Or is it because he’s sort of done with her? Doesn’t want to give her the means to have freedom? Was it just that he was scared?
He’s also come down off molly.
Allison D.: That too.
Brock: He also is the one who goes farthest to be like, it’s weird that you have a bag of clothes. It’s weird that you don’t text anyone. Everyone has done that to her at some point, and everyone to some extent has known that something’s up, but they are all getting enough from her that they haven’t pulled that thread enough.
Alison W.: Also, I wonder if she’s polished herself to a situation with Simon — who really wants nothing from her except for her presence and then sex — and then everyone else, in a day, starts to understand that this is not a whole person. That she just gives you nothing in terms of anything of herself.
Brock: What’s up with the dog? Why the dog?
Alison W.: I felt bad for the dog.
Emily: I feel like you always add a dog when you want to add a little bit of tension around “something gratuitously gross and bad could happen at any moment.” An easy sprinkle-it-into-the-narrative thing.
Let’s go all in on the ending, from the crash on.
Alison W.: I feel like I knew it was going someplace like this. You could see it coming: It was not gonna give you conflict resolution — that would be so out of character for the book. And at the same time, the closer we got, the more I was like, I’m gonna be so annoyed by this. And then I was annoyed.
Allison D.: Because we all agree she’s dead? She dead. That’s a dead dream.
When I brought up that theory at my book club, it hadn’t occurred to anyone else. They thought maybe she showed up horror-movie style, all beat up and bloodied but still physically dragging herself in there in some sort of last gasp. Or it’s like a Black Swan ending, when Natalie Portman goes onstage and she has effectively murdered the other version of herself but actually just bleeds out while performing.
Matthew: I just kept thinking Sopranos.
Alison W.: I felt like it was left in between. So you could be like, This is all a death dream of her actually making it to the party. But also, it fits in with the whole idea of She’s disappeared; she’s a ghost. So if she did actually show up and everyone was just like, Man, something is wrong, that would also fit so well. It would be all of the things inside her — the signs that she was not doing it right — finally coming to the surface in this final scene, where everyone can see her as she doesn’t want to be seen.
Allison D.: There was that line at the beginning of the book, page 35, where she was like, Alex felt that she had been in the accident and died. Isn’t that just telling us — isn’t that just foreshadowing — that she’s gonna die? It’s right there!
Emily: I don’t know, maybe I’m dumb. I read it really literally — that she just achieved her goal and wandered into the party but was sort of wet, stained, and bedraggled and clearly didn’t belong there, and seeing Simon was not gonna bring her any of the relief that she had hoped it would. Fade to black. Which is an annoying way to end. It’s like the ending of a New Yorker short story: Descriptions, external factors, and then some unresolvable ambiguity. You get an A from the Iowa Writers Workshop….I don’t know if they give grades. A check-plus.
Alison W.: It’s funny to think of her being a mess and walking through the party. She talks about how much the need to maintain a kind of normalcy or politeness is one of things she always manipulates. People don’t want there to be a confrontation, they will believe your weird story or try to resolve it, so the idea of her bloody and staggering into this party and everyone is trying really hard to treat it like it’s normal is also kind of funny, and it fits in with what she’s been doing before.
Brock: When she’s in the car, I was haunted by the idea that if only she had gotten more sleep and had more food, she could have defused Jack, persuaded him to let her go. She could have walked into this party, she could have talked her way back into Simon’s life, and everything would have been normal, had it not been for this stupid deer.
Allison D.: As the person who just hit a deer on the Fourth of July and totaled my car: Deer really are the villains of the book, guys.
Alison W.: Deer and capitalism.
Allison D.: I fully believed that she was dead, and I hated that ending so much because it felt like a little too easy of a plot twist. But if she’s alive, staggering into the party bloodied and desperate and making everyone uncomfortable, I like the book. That’s the only way I like the book.
Any last thoughts?
Matthew: I enjoyed it, I have to say. Maybe critiquing it for four newsletters has led us to kind of an arms race of who can have the most complaints, but I did think it was zesty. The style, actually, is kind of great. It has these lulls of plainspokenness that tempt you to believe that Emma Cline can’t do more, but then every page or two, there’s one sentence that really says exactly what it should say without overembellishing. I started reading, and then that happened enough times where I was like, You’re good at this.
Alison W.: She is a good writer. Even though Alex gives us so little, she pulls off something very tricky in allowing us into this character’s thoughts without giving us anything beyond, because she has pushed everything into a blurry background.
Allison D.: I also liked that the flashbacks never felt overused, or schlockily used. They’re exactly what you need them to be. Emma Cline is a great writer. If she’s reading this book club, I don’t want her to think I don’t think she’s good. But you don’t get to be in a book club if you don’t criticize, guys.
Brock: I think it will be, like, a book passed around by 25-year-old Lana del Rey–loving, Eve Babitz–loving, vaping, anxious girls for years to come. Like me.
Emily: Or at least the month to come.
Alison W.: Yeah, “years to come” is tough these days. Everything comes and goes so quickly. I’m obsessed with the fact that Emma Cline grew up on a successful winery. Has anyone had her family’s wine? Cline Family Cellars?
Allison D.: No, but I will now.
Matthew: She talks on this podcast about her brothers and sisters, and it truly sounds like each is more of a picaresque character than the next. One of them, I think, runs a small casino in rural Nevada. Another one is in Ireland as a physicist or something. One is married to a professional rodeo person?
Allison D: I have one last question, though: Which character in The Guest do you want to be, if you had to choose?
Alison W.: There are flashes throughout of the kind of shittiness for the women who are in this world. There’s the girl getting fingered on the beach who says something like, God, do whatever you want. And there’s the wife who gets served the plate of blueberries when everyone else gets sorbet. It feels like if you’re going to be in this world, you should choose a guy. How about Simon?
Brock: I want to be one of the women! At the first party, she says something like, “The women in boxy shift dresses, with legs who look like they put all this energy into it.”
Allison D.: I weirdly think I want to be Margaret. I don’t know why. I feel like she’s gonna go on to write The Guest, get the A24 deal. High school will suck for her, but she’ll be fine on the other side.
Alison W.: And the short stories she writes about this girl who did her makeup once … absolutely her parents will have connections to a Paris Review editor.
Matthew: I’d be the painting that gets scratched.
Emily: I’d be the dog that is, like, getting weed smoke blown into its face all the time.
Allison D.: And nobody’s gonna be Jack with the bacne and the braces.
Alison W.: I mean there are a lot of people who seem very unhappy in this book, quietly unhappy or operatically unhappy,
Emily: That’s because capitalism is [whispers] bad.
Allison D.: And so are deer.
A selection of your responses to last week’s discussion questions.
What did you take away from Alex’s encounter with Dana in the restaurant bathroom?
Alex is avoiding reality. She is drugging herself, consciously blocking, and creating a fantasy world to escape to. Isn’t it convenient that her phone is never working so she doesn’t have to face the apparent danger that awaits her with Dom’s vengeance? The name Dom implies that she has messed with the wrong guy. —Maureen
First it was interesting to me — were we finally going to learn more about Alex? Then it became so meh. Just another person she somehow screwed over and we’ll never know why or how and now she’s a vehicle to add more paranoia about Dom. Or was this a way to see how Alex could have ended up if she played the game right? Older, in the Hamptons with a place to stay and no visible drug addiction/paranoia/kleptomania. —Caitlin
There was a lot of information in this very short encounter. Alex is clearly drawn to Dana and wants to interact with her, yet in the bathroom she waits until Dana has noticed her. Perhaps Alex was hesitant because she knew Dana would be less than thrilled to see her (though that requires a self-awareness that I am unsure Alex has). Dana does not seem to be scared of Dom the way Alex is; in fact it seems Dana blames Alex for … something. Many things, maybe. Certainly, Dana sees Alex as the problem in whatever relationship it is that Alex and Dom have. But in classic Alex fashion she brushes off the brush-off without internalizing much. —Samantha
When Jack takes Alex to the party after dinner, we get more hints that he’s not a well or stable person. How did you respond to her continued pursuit of him to ensure she had a place to sleep that night?
Her time with Jack, and how it all played out in the end, hit me the hardest. He consistently tries to do everything right with Alex, despite his immaturity. Manipulation of a teenager in crises by someone barely into adulthood is truly awful and eliminated whatever shred of empathy I had for Alex. –Cheryl
It seemed more of the same for her. Seeing people for only what they could do to her — not caring about the collateral damage she may leave behind. The signs are very clear to anyone not solely focused on themselves — and she glazes over them to find shelter. Even later when she keeps telling herself she’ll leave and talking herself out of it and digging a bigger hole with this obviously unstable teen. —Caitlin
Jack is one thing: a means to an end. Alex chooses him over Margaret, who she’s certain would let Alex stay with her if Alex wished it. But Margaret is needy and unhappy, and Alex would rather spend her time dangling off of an obviously troubled and childish teenager. I think the most astute Alex is in the entire novel is when she muses that marinating in Margaret’s doldrums could bring Alex down — something that could then threaten her perceived reconciliation with Simon. On some level I think she knows this kid is messy (as is Alex), but she’s willing to use him to get her to Labor Day. —Samantha
Tell us who you would cast to play Alex, Simon, Dom, Jack, Margaret, or any other side character who sticks in your mind.
Alex: Margaret Qualley, Alexandra Daddario
Simon: Ashton Kutcher
Dom: Theo James
Jack: Gavin Casalegno
Margaret: Elle Graham
Lori: Haley Lu Richardson
Alex: Daisy Edgar Jones
Simon: literally, Simon (Baker)
Dom: Is there like a younger version of Bobby Cannavale out there?
Jack: Adam DiMarco
Margaret: Kaitlyn Dever
Alex: Attractive and pretty but could be overlooked. Millie Bobby Brown, Sadie Sink, Jenna Ortega
Dom: I picture Dom at least a decade older than Alex; attractive, but can be scary. Evan Peters, Thomas Felton, Paul Dano
Nicholas: Thirty-ish and good looking. Nicholas Hoult, Will Poulter
Simon: Jude Law
Jack: Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Noah Schnapp
Margaret: late teens, dark curly hair. Merit Leighton, Abby Ryder Fortson
Dana: Older than Alex; mid-late twenties. Sophie Turner, Hailee Steinfeld, Sophia Lillis —Samantha
The whole time I was reading this book I could only visualize Sydney Sweeney as Alex — you could almost see Alex as a continuation of her Euphoria character who moves to New York after high school. —Commenter doublewide
Hollywood has no shortage of “older attractive douchebag man” or “skinny wide-eyed ingenue,” so I’m not concerned about any of the characters except for Alex herself. I would cast someone like Jenna Ortega or Anna Cathcart. I hope that the casting director shares my vision: everyone else in this world should be white, but Alex should be just kinda white-passing enough. Put us on that weird and uncomfortable edge of “Do they know?” the entire time. Make Alex just a little different, but not too different — as long as you don’t look too closely (but who does?). —Sam
I’m trying to re-imagine The Guest with an all-Black cast to see if it still holds up. While I do not believe it works in the Hamptons, I definitely think there is a strong argument for The Guest in the bougie-Black Martha’s Vineyard where the Obamas and the Carters vacay. As such, my ideal casting is as follows:
Alex: Taylor Russell, hands down. I think she could produce a youthful innocence while performing the most heinous of acts.
Simon: Sterling K. Brown is my top choice because I believe he could play both sides of Simon, the charming, self-interested caregiver and the detached, stoic scorned lover. He also gives Howard educated investment banker daddy vibes.
Dom: Something about Cline’s characterization of Dom, and his ability to be consistently hoodwinked by Alex, made me not take him as seriously as I maybe should have. As a result, I think Jharrel Jerome could do a stellar job at balancing the threatening elements of Dom with his more gullible tendencies.
Margaret: Storm Reid, Skai Jackson and Nico Parker will walk in for the role but Marsai Martin will emerge victorious! Martin has this natural ability to communicate an anxious naivety that is central to Margaret’s vibe.
Helen: Although we never encounter Helen again, her intimidating stature felt like a stand-in for a type of woman that frequents vacation destinations like the Hamptons / Martha’s Vineyard. I have been craving to see Thandiwe Newton play a menacing femdom since Maeve in WestWorld and this feels like a shoe-in for her.
Beach Read Book Club is moderated by Kaitlin Jessing-Butz and Jasmine Vojdani. Thanks for reading with us — we hope you enjoyed this strange trip to the Hamptons as much as we did. Please take this short survey letting us know what you thought of the club and what you might like to see in future ones.