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High Life and Low

Tue, 05/09/2023 - 21:55
Emma Cline
D.V. DeVincentis

“The Guest”
Emma Cline
Random House, $28

There are disappointing beach vacations — the rental house was filthy, beach parking was a nightmare, the next-door neighbors partied all night — and there's the six days Alex spends out east in Emma Cline's new novel, "The Guest." Alex is a sketchy young lady who arrives in the Hamptons after messing up in New York City, mucks things up out east as well, and drifts around the East End, meeting new men, killing time, and finding a new place to sleep. 

Alex was an escort in the city, a thief and a pill addict, and something of an alcoholic too. Despite these flaws, she's 22, pretty and charming, and has little difficulty meeting men — or, in one case, a boy — who will give her companionship and a place to crash for a day or two. 

She arrived out east with Simon, a wealthy man in his 50s she met in a bar in New York City, and is the latest winsome young girlfriend to stay at his place. Ms. Cline describes Alex taking in the scene at Simon's mansion: " 'Nice view,' Alex said, and it was. From where she and Simon were standing, the sand was invisible. There was only water, flat and silvered, appearing to stretch from the edge of the terrace to the hot-pink line of the horizon. What would it be like to live here, to occupy this unfettered beauty every day?"

Alex does not get to know. She ticks off Simon, and busts her mobile phone, all in a fateful moment involving a party and a pool, and she must move out. 

Dropped off at the train station, she jumps in with a bunch of 20-somethings renting a place, and the con works because not everyone knows one another. When that plan fizzles, she meets Nicholas, the kind-hearted "house manager" for one of Simon's rich friends, who picks her up as she walks down the highway. When Alex fouls that one up, there's Jack, a teen with sandy blond curls and a love for "Siddhartha" she met on the beach. That con works a little longer, and she and Jack develop a bit of a connection. Until things inevitably blow up. 

Alex has convinced herself all will be right when she turns up at Simon's Labor Day party six days after she's booted out, and simply must survive in the Hamptons until then. 

There are shades of Anna Delvey, the con artist claiming to be an heiress, and subject of the Netflix drama "Inventing Anna," in Alex. Haunting her all the while is dodgy Dom back in the city. She has stolen a bunch of money from Dom, and he's not patient as he awaits his remittance. Alex's damaged phone works now and then, and when it's on the fritz, she gets a break from Dom's frantic texts. 

The book is set in the Hamptons, but Ms. Cline avoids proper nouns — no specific villages, beloved beaches, or notorious restaurants. The whole of the East End is one big, beautiful jumble of beaches, mansions hidden behind hedges, and the people who dwell in them. 

Ms. Cline's previous novel was the well-received "The Girls," loosely based on Charles Manson and his cult of followers, about a group of teen girls staying with an aspiring musician on a ranch in California. 

She has some fun with language in "The Guest." A man on the beach is "tanned the color of expensive luggage." A cellphone "shivers." A wrinkle on Alex's forehead is a "coin slot." The working-class year-round residents are "people who looked the ages that they were."

The one place anxious Alex finds refuge is the water, whether she's swimming in the ocean or in her latest male partner's pool. Ms. Cline writes deftly of the sea: "How odd the ocean was at night — strangely placid, the waves unfurling in polite afterthoughts on the sand."

Alex has shades of antihero about her, but when one breaks her down, there's really no hero side to her. She's nonetheless a fun character to follow, and the reader roots for her to get through the day, and the week, and hopefully defeat a demon or two that haunt her along the way. 

The story has terrific momentum leading up to Simon's Labor Day party and Alex's torturous trip to get there. There are a handful of daunting subplots arriving with her at Simon's front door, but those matters remain mostly unresolved, which was a bit disappointing.  

Still, "The Guest" is a very entertaining read. East End residents in particular will appreciate Ms. Cline's keen eye for details, whether they're about a person or a place, that many of us overlook. At 291 pages, "The Guest" moves very quickly. One could easily knock it off in the six days Alex had to kill out east. 

Michael Malone, a native Long Islander, has had work in The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Emma Cline will be at the East Hampton Library for a reading sponsored by BookHampton on May 25 at 6:30 p.m. "The Guest" comes out on May 16.

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