Summer is coming to a close on the East End of Long Island, and Alex is no longer welcome. A misstep at a dinner party, and the older man she's been staying with dismisses her with a ride to the train station and a ticket back to the city. With few resources and a waterlogged phone, but gifted with an ability to navigate the desires of others, Alex stays on Long Island and drifts like a ghost through the hedged lanes, gated driveways, and sun-blasted dunes of a rarified world that is, at first, closed to her. Propelled by desperation and a mutable sense of morality, she spends the week leading up to Labor Day moving from one place to the next, a cipher leaving destruction in her wake.
Deceptively simple ... What follows could be read as an entertaining series of misguided shenanigans interrupting the upper class’s summer vacation, but under Cline’s command, every sentence as sharp as a scalpel, a woman toeing the line between welcome and unwelcome guest becomes a fully destabilizing force. And not just for her hosts, but for the novel itself ... Cline’s old-fashioned prose style at times had me in a shimmering state of déjà vu, bringing to mind the nimbleness and nuance of John Cheever, who also captured the rot beneath wealthy suburbia ... More novels should probe the stakes of female performance.
A staple of contemporary fiction is what is called, in writing-workshop terms, backstory, meaning an aspect of a character’s past that is revealed to explain her behavior, much in the way that psychoanalysts seek an understanding of their patients by excavating buried traumas. Ms. Cline generates an impressive amount of intrigue by the simple method of cutting backstory out entirely. Apart from Alex’s trouble with her ex, we know nothing of her background ... Ms. Cline’s writing thrives in the pure present. The descriptions are frequently bracing and acute, sharpened to icepicks by a stance of amoral neutrality. But as the story becomes more plotted and Alex’s deceptions come to a head, The Guest runs out of steam, finishing with an anticlimactic non-ending. The difficulty in depicting a cohesive larger picture plagued The Girls, as well, though the problem is less marked here, as Ms. Cline has come closer to finding an ideal novel form that recognizes neither past nor future but passes as Alex tries to live, 'in some alternate universe ruled by immediacy.'
Cline has written a thriller about trying to get by, a summer read for the precariat. It’s a novel driven by the suspense of what it takes to survive—a suspense that can take the pleasure out of anything, even a day at the beach ... Alex is a quiet heroine—almost like a mist of a person, barely there ... Cline does a pitch-perfect job of keeping Alex’s understanding of herself in sync with the reader’s. We are deprived of much of her backstory because Alex is someone who prefers not to dwell ... Cline avoids a simplistic eat-the-rich story on a number of levels ... Cline has written a beach read for the people who clean up once the party is over.