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Emma Cline's 'The Guest' is this summer's anti-vacation novel

The book shares the same "outsider looking in" premise as Cline’s wildly successful debut “The Girls."
/ Source: TODAY

Emma Cline’s second novel "The Guest" is the spiritual opposite of a beach read. It’s more like a "what if everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, while on vacation" novel.

Cline laughs over the phone as I tell her this, and says it makes her happy to hear that I came to that conclusion.

"There are these tropes of a vacation novel or beach read. I think I’m interested in draining those of their romance, or seeing if I could avoid the expected swerves of that kind of book," Cline, who is also the author of the short story collection "Daddy," tells

Emma Cline
Courtesy DV DeVincentis

"The Guest" shares the same "outsider looking in" vibe as her wildly successful debut "The Girls." But the choice of fewer details, description and backstory throughout her new novel was a deliberate reaction against her best-selling first book.

"The Girls" was rooted in a specific place and time: A cult in California in the 1960s, modeled on the Manson Family.

"Either consciously or unconsciously, you're almost reacting against the book you wrote before. 'The Girls' was moving around, past and present — it spans all these decades," Cline shares. "It was a lot about how the past informs the present, and kind of this tangle of timelines."

"The Guest," on the other hand, spans only the week leading up to Labor Day as 22-year-old Alex is kicked out of the house she’s staying at on Long Island and has to survive for several days as an outsider amongst New York’s richest ... without a working phone.

The result is a tense, stressful and bare-bones story that will keep readers on edge until its conclusion.

The less you know, the better, Cline says

Like she did in "The Girls," Cline, 34, says she wanted to explore a secluded community in her second novel.

"I’m interested in a closed community from the vantage point of an outsider," she says. "There’s something I enjoy about looking at a community. What are its internal rules and organizations? What’s the social information that goes unsaid that you have to navigate?"

"The Guest" reveals little about Alex other than how she ended up on Long Island. She previously was a sex worker in New York City, and she met an older man at a bar and developed a relationship with him.

Cline says the choice to reveal as little as possible about Alex was central to crafting her idea behind the book.

"My instinct was always that she would not be a character who you knew fully," Cline says. "I feel like a lot of the book is thinking about disassociation and how to render that into fiction. How would you write about a character who, even though she’s really perceptive in some ways about her surroundings, doesn’t know herself and leaves this void so the reader doesn’t really ever get to know her?"

"How would you write about a character who, even though she’s really perceptive in some ways about her surroundings, doesn’t know herself?"

Emma Cline

"With a character like this, I think it’s easy to want an explanation for why they are and the way that they are," she adds. "I really wanted to resist the kind of easy math of that and allow her to be a more complicated character."

As Alex grows more desperate to get out of the city for reasons that aren't quite clear, the man invites her to stay with him at his house for a few weeks at the end of the summer — problem solved (or so she thinks).

Alex's oasis escape rapidly begins to go off of the rails when the man buys her a ticket back to New York City after she makes a faux pas at a party. Convinced she can't return to the city, she decides to remain on Long Island until the man throws his annual Labor Day party in a few days time, where she is sure he will take her back.

Cline says she thinks there was something that appealed to her about having an experience of a "very compressed period of time" drive her second novel.

"How am I going to pressurize this character in this setting?" she recalls asking herself during the writing process. "It's like turning the screws on the character the same way. Not having a phone kind of ratchets up the pressure on."

Cline is referring to Alex's phone consistently not turning on almost as soon as the book begins. And while that's relatively low stakes, Alex has to navigate finding places to stay and meals to eat in a place she knows no one, all without a cell phone connection.

When her phone does turn on, a mysterious man named Dom is barraging her with calls and texts. As the book progresses, it becomes clear Alex owes this man a large sum of money, though we don't know why or what she did to be indebted to him.

"I'm always interested in the power of negative space for the reader. I'm interested in what ways can you deploy purposeful vagueness," she says.

If 'The Girls' was a love letter to California, 'The Guest' is an incisive look at New York

Cline, who was born in Northern California, says going to Long Island for the first time in her 20s while living in New York City sparked the idea behind "The Guest." She says a visit to a Hamptons beach club inspired a scene from the book.

“I thought it was so strange that you couldn’t go to the beach unless you have like a resident parking pass — it made it very clear like who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t,” she says. “I really loved the idea a wild card character set loose in this place that was very much organized to keep out outsiders.”

She says all of the characters in "The Guest" are exaggerated versions of New Yorkers.

"I don't know anyone like Alex, but I think it's hard to survive in New York," she says. "Everyone in New York is hustling to some extent. So this is a very exaggerated version."

Cline has said she wanted to write something about her home state of California as her first book, which ended up becoming "The Girls." After years living in New York, she's since moved back to California and lives in Los Angeles.

Emma Cline books
Emma Cline's three books: "The Girls," "The Guest" and "Daddy."

The legacy of 'The Girls'

"The Girls," Cline's debut, was a literary sensation before it even came out. Cline famously landed a seven-figure publishing deal for her still-hyped novel, which was published in 2016 when she was 27.

"I feel so lucky to have had a book make any kind of impact — I think it's harder and harder. And I just feel lucky to be part of anyone's reading experience," she says.

"Sometimes I get letters from like very sweet high school girls, and it continuously surprises me. It's such a nice part of putting a book out, and it was not one that I really knew to expect or to even think was possible," she adds. "I think when you're writing a book, you're so focused on just the book itself ... once it leaves my desk or computer, I don't really like think about what it might do in the world. So it's always a surprise to hear a nice thing about it."

Cline says working on her second novel didn't make her nervous following the success of "The Girls," because she had started an early draft of what would become "The Guest" right before her debut was published.

While she didn't start working on "The Guest" until late 2019 or early 2020 ("pre-Covid," she estimates), she also noted the release of her short story collection, "Daddy," in 2020 made the release of "The Guest" feel more like her third book.

"I'm not thinking of it too much as my second novel," she says.