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 first meeting of New York’s Beach Read Book Club. Our reading group — Brock Colyar, Allison P. Davis, Emily Gould, Matthew Schneier, and Alison Willmore — is excited to dive into The Guest with you. Today, we’re talking about chapters one through three, including our initial reactions, what to make of Alex, and the men of the novel.
Without spoiling anything for readers who haven’t finished yet, what did you think of the book overall?
Allison P. Davis: I was so stressed, it was like I wanted to go back on Xanax. My friend described it as Uncut Gems for girls, and I agree with that. I had to speed-read it just so I wouldn’t be so anxious.
Emily Gould: I don’t know if the author had The House of Mirth in mind as a conscious model, but it’s one of my favorites, so I’m always looking for that pattern in books: What are the inflection points where the character’s decisions are bad but the tension works? Every time Alex has the opportunity to not make a bad decision, you’re like, Please, come on, this time, don’t steal those pills! Or, Don’t steal that anything, actually — just stop stealing things.
Matthew Schneier: I felt compelled to finish it out of a combination of stress and interest. To me, the structural analog seemed much more familiar as a prestige TV show. You could see it from both directions — you could imagine any savvy novelist at this point is thinking in the back of her head or his head, How am I gonna extend this IP?
Emily: Can we transcribe that we all just nodded?
Matthew: But I also think it could go the other direction, where we’re so saturated by serialized TV dramas, that that is the way that we digest stories and tell them. And obviously that serial form has existed from basically the dawn of the novel anyway, so it’s not that TV did anything that new. But there is something so A24-HBO (complimentary) about this structure: Every chapter is a new episode, there’s a character–slash–antagonist–slash–fallible savior or savior who would be a savior should they manage not to fuck it up. I liked the propulsivity of that. I even liked the running countdown clock, which, in another book, I might be sort of annoyed by — that “Is she gonna diffuse the bomb?” kind of Die Hard thing.
Alison Willmore: It’s interesting to read a book that has a character who presents this apathy toward everything that is happening, while at the same time, the book itself has so much tension. It’s constantly teetering on the verge of disaster. In the first few chapters, this is a book about the kind of Play It As It Lays–style heroine, who is anemic but beautiful and drifting through a luxurious life without direction. I really appreciated all of the slow-building flashes where you understand that this character is much more chaotic than she presents herself in the subjective third person. She is someone who actually makes bad decisions but also feels this urge to poke at things until they break.
Brock Colyar: This book made me less anxious than maybe it did you, Allison, but I read it while I was at the beach, staying in someone’s parents’ very nice house on Long Island, and I was not making the same decisions as Alex was in the book. Also, every time she steals something I was rooting for her to steal it … I was kind of hoping that this was all going to work out in the end. We’ve all been interested in scammers for a couple of years now — I’m sick of scammer stories, but I found this really delightful. New York is filled with these types of characters. I know a thousand people, including myself, who are really good at forcing ourselves into the lives of the rich and wealthy around us.
Emily: But there’s always a price.
Brock: Unless you’re really good at it.
Emily: Unless you have no soul or conscience whatsoever. Sometimes it’s really boring and annoying to be around rich people and that’s the price you pay.
Allison D.: Alison, when you described her as beautiful, I had such an immediate reaction. I never for a second thought that this girl was beautiful. She’s artful about how she pulls herself together, but I assumed she was wonky looking. Am I the only one?
Alison W.: She says she’s not beautiful enough to be a model, which I feel by standards in most places in the world, you would count her as a really pretty girl. By New York standards, she is quickly understanding she is not on the level to be professionally beautiful in the way she maybe first imagined.
Brock: Also, she’s 22. So the people around her are jealous.
What else do we know about Alex? How do you envision her?
Brock: I feel like I know a thousand characters of young TikTok-y girls who go sit in the Mark, waiting on daddies to pick them up, or scammer gays who find rich men to take them to Fire Island every summer. I imagined those people when I was reading her.
Emily: It’s so easy to project pretty much anything onto Alex because, as written, she has very little interiority. We do get a lot of glimpses of what she looks like physically because she’s very conscious of what she’s wearing and whether she’s pulling off belonging in the Hamptons, but don’t really feel her as an intimate presence. It’s an authorial choice — we’re denied a lot of information about who she is on a deep level.
Alison W.: But she tells us a lot by her incredibly brutal critiques and the standard she is holding for herself, which she’s internalized from this world of commodified attractiveness. Even though we don’t get that she has this color hair, you can guess a lot by all of the faults she is constantly finding in herself, from the wrinkle right in the middle of her forehead to exactly how she does her makeup. I felt like I understood Alex’s sense of self so well from her passing moments of observation.
Matthew: I like how opaque Alex was, though, because she’s fairly opaque to herself. Despite this kind of savvy, scammy savoir faire that she has, I think she doesn’t know why she makes most of the bad decisions she does. I could imagine a lesser novel that has endless scenes of her brushing her hair in front of a mirror or doing her makeup. She understands that she is attractive enough to make this work and it doesn’t matter what she looks like. She’s almost all plot; the book is almost all plot. She can be thoughtful in flashes, but this isn’t a book that wants to psychoanalyze her to death in part because she is not psychoanalyzing herself to death.
Allison D.: Although you can sense whatever offputting unlikable stench of her soul that’s right underneath the surface that she’s always covering up with whatever silk dress or all the makeup. There’s something repulsive about her that was really intriguing to me, this deep rot that I couldn’t figure out that kept me going.
Matthew: “Keep the breath sweet.” Something about that phrasing is very perfect and underdone.
Alison W.: I feel like she worries about her armpits as well. There’s this fundamental rot inside of her that’s making its way to the surface through all of that expensive clothing that’s been bought to her.
Right — it’s the moment when she’s kicked out by Simon that notes the sweat stains on her fancy silk. Concretely, what do we know about her background?
Allison D.: Her roommates hate her ass.
Alison W.: She essentially shrugs off the idea that she has some core origin story or trauma. It seems like she’s from a nebulous place that is not that interesting, like she invented herself as soon as she moved away.
Matthew: There’s a spectrum of much or how little authors feel compelled to identify a precise origin story for various traumas: You’ve got A Little Life on one end and then Ottessa Moshfegh on the other, and I think she’s closer to that end. This is kind of like My Year of Sex and Relaxation, except it’s not at all relaxing.
Brock: It never says the words sex work, but she’s obviously a sex worker. Or I think it does say it when the book compares sex work to the art world, or when it talks about her online accounts, but I think that’s as far as it goes.
Alison W.: She had a real job at a restaurant once, so it was not like she immediately started in this life that we find her in. It was a process.
In the first section, we’re introduced to two men, Simon and Dom. What did you make of those two poles of masculinity in this character’s life?
Brock: Do you guys hate them as much as you hate her?
Allison D.: I don’t like anyone in this book!
Brock: I mean, Simon really sucks. I love what Alex says about Simon’s daughter, that she’s one of those daughters of the rich who can’t buy beauty.
Matthew: I want to be clear that I don’t hate Alex. I like Alex. I wish Alex could sort of figure it out. The book is ultimately an indictment of all of the various ways that people who have all the privilege and wealth and ability can refit the world around them to their own comforts, and that is capital-W wrong. Alex is a character who is so passive that she is then molded in the complementary image to that. I know we’re supposed to blame Simon, and I do, but it is hard not to want to shake this girl and be like, “You are very smart, you are very perceptive — is it that hard to see these people for what they are?” I guess it is.
Emily: She’s not that smart. The way that the author chooses to withhold intelligence or good decision-making from Alex feels like a choice. I also don’t hate her, it’s more like I don’t know her. I feel like I will know her a lot better once this gets green-lit and, post-strike, Julia Garner imbues her with some light behind her eyes. But on the page there’s just a dead-soul quality. Simon’s like a nonentity basically. Someone who wants to wear a 22-year-old as an accessory in the Hamptons.
Alison W.: We don’t get to see Dom that clearly for a long time; we get half of the story. It becomes a pattern where Alex is just like, “I don’t know what happened.” With Dom you get how she will elide half of what happened in an incident — from herself, even. She’s pushed it out of her own recollection.
In these first three chapters, you kind of understand her. She’s positioning herself as this adaptable, half-invisible presence — she says she’s social furniture in the shape of a girl. But then, in both of these situations, she has impulsively blown things up. She talks about what happens with the young husband at that party as something that happens to her, that she got pushed into the pool. But you’re like, No, you made those choices. You were playing with danger, then wanted to see what would happen and if you could repair it. I think the tension between the sense of passivity with which she describes her own actions versus the glimpse you can get from outside of her being more active is really interesting.
Allison D.: He’s so pathetic, Dom. Those text messages are so sad. I kind of assumed he was … pimp seems like the wrong word here, but her sex-worker manager, her talent manager, and then he fucked her over. Or he’s just like some really heartbroken bad boy she was with who’s not that bad.
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.