Worse for Cashing In: On Emma Cline’s “The Guest”

By Ama KwartengMay 9, 2023

Worse for Cashing In: On Emma Cline’s “The Guest”

The Guest by Emma Cline

THE FIRST REQUISITE of a good servant is that they know their place. The second is that they anticipate their master’s needs, a task that involves a painstaking level of attention.

When we first meet Alex, the protagonist of Emma Cline’s latest novel The Guest (2023), the 22-year-old sex worker spends her days swimming in the ocean high on painkillers, reading magazines in the bath until the water runs cold, and waiting for Simon to return home from work. Simon is the 50-something-year-old man Alex is dating. Yes, they are actually dating. Simon is a civilian—someone who doesn’t intentionally pick up escorts—and when they first meet, Alex quickly realizes that a man like him could provide the stability and security she has been seeking. And so, she transforms herself into the type of girl he wants: someone who grew up in the middle of the country, has just moved to Manhattan after graduating college, and is thinking about grad school. After a number of dates, Simon asks Alex to spend August at his summer home in the Hamptons.

Before leaving Manhattan with Simon, Alex has begun to grow desperate. She is “no longer welcome at certain hotel bars,” has been banned from restaurants, and owes her roommates months of back rent. She is constantly bombarded with text messages from Dom, a man from her past to whom she owes a large sum of money. She considers a breast augmentation after former clients ghost her and books a “series of laser treatments: flashes of blue light soa[k] her face while she look[s] out of tinted medical goggles like a somber spaceman.” Simon appears to swoop in to save the day.

Of course, there are strings attached. Alex is highly perceptive to Simon’s moods. After he gets agitated when she tries to fix his swim stroke in the pool, Alex makes a mental note: “So that was more information to file away—don’t correct Simon.” Simon makes Alex even more hypervigilant about maintaining her appearance. He tells Alex what to wear. He doesn’t like her hair to fall in her eyes, so she uses an oil to smooth it down: “She used her fingers to dot foundation on her forehead, under her eyes, along her jaw. Brisk work with a damp sponge to spread it all out and disappear the flaws.” This labor remains hidden with no evidence left behind. Though Alex tries to be a good girl, her lack of impulse control and her desire for “the night to sharpen into action” threatens the stability Simon offers. After one too many transgressions where the object threatens to become a subject, Simon kicks Alex out. With nowhere to go, she deludes herself in a way many women do when it comes to former lovers. Alex convinces herself that Simon didn’t really mean it when he told Alex to leave. Even though he never extended an invite to his annual Labor Day party, she thinks, he does want her there. This was all a “game he’d set up, both of them hitting their marks, and all would be well.” The rest of the novel follows Alex as she floats across the island, taking on different roles to survive the week leading up to Labor Day.


“Only one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl,” writes Susan Sontag in her 1972 essay “The Double Standard of Aging.” “The ideal state proposed for women is docility, which means not being fully grown up,” Sontag continues. While Alex is technically an adult, she has little personality and few interests. These traits make her seem like a good listener to the men that come in and out of her life. When Alex finally does act, her actions are driven by a longing she does not understand. She has no legible past, no obvious context. She is a vessel, waiting for someone to fill her days with meaning: “Alex was a sort of inert piece of social furniture—only her presence was required, the general size and shape of a young woman.” The reader has zero insight into Alex’s inner life, but the story is set among the wealthy people who inhabit the Hamptons—a setting where no one cares to hear her thoughts or feelings anyway. When Simon brings her along to parties, Alex is, for the most part, ignored by fellow partygoers, as if she were a child dragged along by her parents.

Cline renders Alex childlike in other ways too. Throughout the novel, Alex references the sex workers who mothered her. They taught her how to behave: “Keep fingernails clean. Keep breath sweet. Don’t leave toothpaste in the sink basin.” They told her that bags “were the one thing that actually had resale value.” She learned how to do her makeup by studying her peers’ application techniques for hours. Though Alex has spent hours surrounded by women, learning the rituals and ablutions of femininity, she does not know how to interact with other girls. In one scene, Alex is killing time until Simon’s Labor Day party by hanging out with Margaret, a teenage girl whom she met after sneaking into a country club. (She pulls this off by kidnapping a child, essentially.) Alex doesn’t know how to interpret Margaret’s attempt at cultivating a friendship: “Was she flirting, in her clumsy way?” Alex’s interactions with women are stilted and awkward because she sees intimacy as a clear exchange of resources.

The girls who mothered Alex in the past, however, eventually disappear without a trace. Alex never sees an example of what a future life could look like.


Cline plays with the metaphor of invisibility, which Alex expresses figuratively through her dissociation. She does not have a clear sense of what is going on inside of her, which means she is incapable of being empathetic to the feelings of others. For example, when Alex discovers that the teenage boy she has been using for shelter is suicidal and has brought her to his ex-girlfriend’s empty home, her main concern is for herself: “What exactly did this mean for her, the parents looking for Jack? Jack with his meds, the meds he was or wasn’t taking. He was definitely not supposed to be here, at this girl’s family’s house. At least Jack didn’t know Alex’s full name. That was comforting.”

Cline is highly attuned to the rhythms of the slave/master dynamics in Alex’s life: Alex’s experiences as a young woman and as a sex worker inform the ways in which she moves through the world. To survive, Alex has learned to shape-shift into whatever someone wants her to be. She has observed enough human behavior to know how to manipulate others for her own gain. Unfortunately for Alex, reality starts to conspire against the servant. There’s the whole issue of aging—Alex notices a “faint wrinkle” forming in-between her eyebrows and tries to tell herself that she’s imagining it—which slowly and surely depreciates her power and social value. As Sontag writes, “Since women are considered maximally eligible in early youth, after which their sexual value drops steadily, even young women feel themselves in a desperate race against the calendar. They are old as soon as they are no longer very young.” As the novel’s title suggests, Alex is not a permanent resident; a guest, by definition, is passing through. Any upper hand gained is temporary. Alex even recognizes this herself, after she has been initially kicked out of Simon’s house: “You were the exception, until you weren’t.” It is rare that the servant maintains the upper hand. However, Cline’s skill with language, shimmering insights into complexities of womanhood and class, and knowing turns of phrase are not enough to transform this overdone tale, the self-sabotage of a young woman, into something bold or unique. The narrative shape follows its expected and worn-in contours, its ending inevitable.

The story reads like a summer day in August, reflecting its time, place, and setting. The tone is slow and dreamlike, and Cline uses Alex’s interiority as a device to intentionally create a loose grip on reality for the reader as Alex drifts across the island in a drug-fueled haze. “It was a relief to have the option to fully peace out of reality,” she thinks at one point in the novel. Other thoughts flash through her mind: “You could perform a constant filtering of whatever you were feeling, taking in the facts and shifting them to the side”; “There were many ways to keep knowledge from yourself, to not think too hard about things you didn’t want to confirm”; “he understood these words were just gestures at meaning, not meaning itself.”

In one instance in the novel, Alex recalls advice from a girl who told her to pretend that life is a movie when things are not going as planned. She does this to survive on the island, taking on new roles each night as a member of a shared summer rental, a girlfriend, and an old family friend, among others. Her ability to become a blank canvas—as well as her youth, beauty, and whiteness—serves as a survival tool.

When you are young and have seemingly avoided the consequences of your actions, that can all appear to be true. Why can’t you manifest your reality? Isn’t that what everyone is talking about these days? Regrettably for Alex, she has spent too much time around rich people in a town “where suffering seemed to have no place, the idea of pain or misfortune starting to fuzz out and seem less likely,” and she is not one of them. “The bubble of safety” does not include people like her. In Simon’s world, as in ours, beauty is one of the only legitimate forms of capital women are allowed to possess. Unfortunately, such power expires quickly and usually leaves the woman poorer for cashing in.


Ama Kwarteng is a writer based in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Ama Kwarteng is a writer based in Brooklyn.


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