I was interviewing someone for a story yesterday and we got onto a tangent about books we loved, and books we didn’t. We both agreed that perhaps we have reached an age where certain books are Not For Us because we are Old. I felt that way about Sally Rooney’s Normal People. And I also felt that way, though to a lesser extent, about Emma Cline’s The Guest.

It’s a novel about Alex, a sex worker who has joined her much older boyfriend at his beach house in Long Island. Even though he isn’t paying here, there is clearly an exchange. She can live with him without holding down a job, and he buys her jewelry, bags and clothes. They’re not what she would purchase for herself, but they represent what he wants her to be, as appropriate arm candy for dinners and parties he takes her to around the island.

After doing something he didn’t like at one such party, he tells her to go back to New York. She pretends to, but doesn’t. The rest of the book is what she does while waiting until his big Labor Day party, where she assumes he’ll welcome her back with open arms.

A big issue I had with Normal People is that the characters were unlikable, but I was supposed to like them. Alex is unlikable, but Cline wrote her that way on purpose. We’re not supposed to be cheering for her. Alex’s background about what lead her to sex work is purposely vague. The specifics don’t matter, except we know this isn’t the life she envisioned for herself. Even as she bulldozes through strangers’ lives, the events that turned her into a liar and a thief don’t excuse her actions here.

When I finished the book, I did the mental equivalent of a shrug. While I didn’t find Alex interesting enough to really care what happened to her, Cline did continue to tighten the tension as Labor Day came closer, which pulled me through to the end of the book. So it gets a “fine,” but not an “aggressively fine,” with a caveat that this style of book may not be to my liking because it’s not really for me.

Nail polish: Joey by Zoya.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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