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 […]
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