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Talking to Strangers About Emma Cline's The Guest

Aug 17, 2023

Lizzie and Kaitlyn attend a sold-out, Friday night, after-hours book club.

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Lizzie: One night several years ago, Kaitlyn and I and a group of other friends ended up at a party in the South Street Seaport. It was at the apartment of someone none of us knew, and I can’t say for sure how we got there. We were excited to see what kinds of people lived in this gift-shop neighborhood, and what their apartment would look like. Would every room feature its own ship in a bottle? Would there be portholes instead of windows?

Of course, the reality couldn’t compare to our fantasy, as is standard for reality. It was a regular old apartment, with regular old IKEA furniture. There was a nice rooftop and cheap beer in the fridge. Eventually, the host requested that our group please leave the premises, probably because they’d realized that no one knew who we were, and also perhaps because Kaitlyn may have mildly insulted their taste in literature.

Anyway, it was this party that we reflected on last weekend as we headed to a sold-out Friday-night book club at McNally Jackson’s South Street Seaport location—where we’d be discussing, with strangers, the novel about weaseling your way into places you don’t belong that everyone’s been talking about this summer: Emma Cline’s The Guest.

Kaitlyn: The other thing I remember about that Seaport party was that someone there was blowing up a bunch of pool inflatables to use as roof furniture. (Imagine being at a party where most people are standing but some people are sitting down on pink inner tubes …) I want to be clear that we brought our own Bud Light Limes from a nearby Duane Reade and did not steal anything from those people, other than their view of the East River. I don’t remember being embarrassed about being asked to leave, and that’s because nothing is embarrassing when you have co-conspirators. (This is called the “Watergate burglar principle.”) It’s only when you’re alone that you can be humiliated (“Nixon principle”).

Lizzie has already covered the vibe of the South Street Seaport, but I also think you should know that one of its main features is a construction site that has been the subject of a lot of controversy for years and years, most of which is too boring to explain, but one of the issues is that it is on top of the rubble of a 19th-century thermometer factory and some people have worried that digging around could release a lot of mercury vapor. Anyway, I was in a bit of a mood the day of the Guest book club. I left work early and stomped downtown. Online, some had been referring to The Guest as “Uncut Gems for girls,” which I consider a spoiler and not accurate. While I was walking, I passed the AT&T Long Lines building, which is a hideous brown skyscraper known for having zero windows and maybe having some relation to the surveillance state. Looking up, I thought that someone should instead write “Underworld for girls.” (I love baseball and I’m very paranoid.) I also thought that people have been talking about “girls” too much lately.

I then passed what I have to assume is a temporary business, Malibu Barbie Café New York. I waited for Lizzie at the deserted end of Front Street, while staring at a bunch of garbage trucks parked under an overpass and regretting my choice to make a pre-book-club reservation for us at a bodega-and-speakeasy called The Little Shop. The chalkboard sign on the sidewalk said “purveyor of fine and junk foods.”

Lizzie: On my way to The Little Shop, I walked past a new pickleball court hogging the sidewalk in front of a Duane Reade. I wondered if the people playing in matching outfits were actors paid to create unthreatening “bustle” for the neighborhood. I stopped to buy a granola bar, and when I needed to throw out my wrapper, the only available trash can was one that looked like a barrel. In the South Street Seaport, gimmicks are the most important currency, and the neighborhood’s commitment to them continued at The Little Shop.

You walk through a “convenience store” to get to the bar in a back room, but the store felt more like a sanitized sitcom set than a convincing front. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the boxes of cereal and the cans of soup lining the shelves turned out to be empty. Is anyone actually shopping here for pantry goods? How often do they restock the Fruit Loops? I’m guessing never!

Kaitlyn: Lizzie thought that if you were taking a date to The Little Shop, a suave thing to do would be to pick up one of the boxes of pancake mix and say something like, “This is for tomorrow morning.”

It’s a clever set-up in The Little Shop, for sure. The idea is that you pick out your snacks, and then pay a 20 percent markup to have them “plated” for you. We had no problem with this fee. We did wonder why the only cheeses available were Cabot and Organic Valley. Even a Heluva Good would be more luxurious, don’t you think? Not to be snobs. But this is Manhattan. Also, if you buy a whole brick of cheese and then someone slices up the whole brick of cheese for you, that’s really too much cheese for two ladies to get through together at happy hour.

To their credit, The Little Shop does provide sandwich bags for your excess cheese. They also return your Pretzel Chips bag so you can put the rest of your Pretzel Chips back into it. So, after a short white-wine pregame, I tossed our snacks in my tote bag and Lizzie plucked a fake peacock feather out of a juice glass on the table to slip into hers. This behavior was what she called “going Guest-mode.” (In The Guest, the main character steals an expensive watch and a lot of prescription pills.)

We should say a little more about The Guest. Everyone in New York is reading it (or has read it). The book is about a generically pretty young woman named Alex who is more grifter than guest. She’s on the run from financial obligations and threats of violence in “the city,” and living with a rich man named Simon in his beach house, in what seems to be the Hamptons. He kicks her out (politely, through the staff, of course) after she embarrasses him at a pool party, and that’s when the real events of the novel start. She reasons that if she waits it out until Simon’s Labor Day party, he will no longer be mad at her, so she has five days to kill. Alex pinballs around town, manipulating one rich person after another into hosting her for an extra few hours or a night or two at a time. Of course, her plots get only more ill-considered and dangerous as she goes along. No spoilers!

Lizzie: Our own plans that evening were possibly ill-considered, but not dangerous, and maybe this is where we went wrong. Had we better planned the night to thematically align with elements of The Guest, maybe I wouldn’t have had to take that fake feather for the thrill of it. Maybe Kaitlyn wouldn’t have had to carry around half a block of warm cheese for the rest of the night. But, like Alex, we had gone too far to back out now. It was time to leave the bar and head to the book club, without committing any crimes.

We didn’t know what to expect. The other day someone said to me, “No one’s talking about how Greta Gerwig directed Barbie,” and it occurred to me that there’s a universe where The Guest is a book that no one’s ever heard of. But this was the second McNally Jackson “After Hours” book club dedicated to the book, and New York magazine just published their own book-club newsletter about it, so we know that, anecdotally, NYC-based book clubs at least are ravenous for it.

Kaitlyn: If not dangerous, a book club is still a risk, especially with a book about modern-day “the city.” It’s too easy for people to say things like “This reminded me of my own life” or to talk about the characters as if they’re real people who they’ve met and know things about. But we were excited about this one because it would have professional guidance (a McNally Jackson moderator) and because anyone who RSVPs in advance to talk about a book on a Friday night must be serious. Probably more serious than us!

When we arrived, we chatted with the event organizer, Mikaela, who is very chic and has an Australian accent. She was wearing cream satin. She’d had cocktail napkins made up with a curly “After Hours” logo and conversation starters on them, and she’d also come up with the brilliant innovation of ordering people to shuffle into new mini-groups every 20 minutes or so. This prevented awkward silences and the horrible experience of having someone’s eyes wander up over your shoulder and around the room while you are talking to them.

Lizzie: The shuffle was welcome. Our first round was a little bit messy, so we can call it a warm-up. I couldn’t hear what the far end of the table was saying. One girl admitted that she hadn’t read the book and was just accompanying a friend who had. She seemed incredibly regretful. One guy mentioned that, compared with other books he had recently read, he actually didn’t have that much to say about this one.

A book club might not be the ideal place to find yourself at a loss for words, but maybe he was on to something. Maybe there was nothing left to say about The Guest. Or maybe we just needed to try harder.

Kaitlyn: With those guys, I tried arguably way too hard. I wanted to make them feel better about their lack of interest in the book, so I ended up doing a little rant about how it was fun and well plotted but “unsubstantial.” It wasn’t doing much as a novel, I said. Well, I was being obnoxious, but I was coming from a good place. (And it isn’t Middlemarch; that’s just a fact.)

With our next set of conversation partners, two women roughly our age, we did better. The four of us talked about all the moralizing we’d seen in The Guest’s Goodreads comments. A lot of people on the internet were worried that Emma Cline wasn’t aware that the character she’d written was not a very good person. Maybe, by writing about this fictional girl, she was endorsing all of her made-up choices, they suggested. We’d all gotten sick of this aspect of the culture, we agreed. In fact, we’re so sick of it that we’re sick of being sick of it. Stop putting us in the position of defending fake people … and books we didn’t even love.

Last note of importance: Before book club, our dearest friend Ashley, who was off on an actual beach vacation, had asked us to find out what everyone thought happened at the end of The Guest. The last 10 pages or so are kind of mystical and vague, and a reader has to make some guesses about what’s literally going on because [SPOILER] the main character is a bit out of it and possibly concussed. There’s been a lot of discussion about this. Like some of the Reddit commenters, Ashley was sure that the book ended with [SPOILER] murder, and she also was sure that everyone else aside from me and Lizzie would agree with her. Well, not one real-life book-club person did. As they say in English class, the theory wasn’t supported by the text … Sorry, Ash!

Lizzie: The “she was murdered” theory was floating around online, but in real life it was met with blank stares. Ah, well. Maybe we just didn’t ask the right people. But time wasn’t on our side! Like a 20-something scammer on her way to party in the Hamptons, we also had places to go and people to see.

We were back on the cobblestone streets of the Seaport by 8 p.m., headed out to the second halves of our respective nights, with tote bags full of items we stole (just kidding!).

On Nobody Famous: Guesting, Gossiping, and Gallivanting, a collection of Famous People letters from the past five years, is available now from Zando Projects and The Atlantic.