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Emma Cline on examining the Hamptons' frictionless façade in new book 'The Guest'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The new novel "The Guest" unfolds against a backdrop of wealth. It is high summer. We're in the Hamptons on Long Island. Everyone is rich. Everyone is attractive. The champagne is iced. The beaches and the pools are perfect, sparkling, serene. And the main character, Alex, moves among them like a walking one-woman wrecking ball. She is a 22-year-old sex worker trying to leave that life behind. "The Guest" is Emma Cline's second novel, following her barnstormer hit of a first novel, "The Girls." Emma Cline, hi.

EMMA CLINE: Hi.

KELLY: I want to start with Alex, your main character. As I just noted, she is very good at crashing parties...

CLINE: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...At hopping from encounter to encounter, from bed to bed, leaving destruction in her wake. Are you of the view that that is how some people are, that whether they're trying to or not trying to, they're inherently vectors for instability?

CLINE: I think I was interested in a character who, in some ways, was extremely perceptive about the world around her and could navigate it with ease, kind of scanning a room instantly and downloading social information but at the same time have this massive blind spot about their own self, and that that combination would kind of lead her into these situations where she creates chaos everywhere she goes.

KELLY: Tell me more about the particular situation in which Alex finds herself as this story opens. She's at a dinner party.

CLINE: She's at a dinner party, and she's the guest of a much older man who has taken her out of a bad situation in the city and kind of given her refuge. And at this dinner party, kind of despite knowing that she's there almost as a social prop, she gets too drunk and embarrasses her host at the party.

KELLY: She finds herself in the swimming pool with another man to...

CLINE: Yeah (laughter).

KELLY: ...Get a little more detail around it. Yeah.

CLINE: So kind of this massive party foul that goes against everything that she's been trying to do, which is maintain this performance.

KELLY: You write - I mean, it's very clear from the very beginning that she's an outsider. There's a passage in the first chapter - that I wonder if you would read - that lets us understand a little bit how all this looks and feels from Alex's perspective.

CLINE: (Reading) When Simon had first taken her to the beach, he'd kicked off his shoes at the entrance. Everyone did, apparently. There were shoes and sandals piled up by the low wood railing. No one takes them? - Alex asked. Simon raised his eyebrows. Who would take someone's shoes? But that had been Alex's immediate thought, how easy it would be to take things out here - all sorts of things - the bikes leaning against the fence, the bags unattended on towels, the cars left unlocked, no one wanting to carry their keys on the beach - a system that existed only because everyone believed they were among people like themselves.

KELLY: Among people like themselves. What intrigued you, Emma Cline, about writing from the outside looking in?

CLINE: I think it's a viewpoint that I'm always drawn to as a writer. And I think with this book especially, it was interesting to think about a character who in some ways is invisible because she's a young woman, because people have all these assumptions about what that means. That gives her a strange kind of power. People will act a certain way in front of you that they might not if they thought you were almost a real person. And it makes her this kind of spy in this closed community.

KELLY: You're making me think - I also read and loved your first novel, "The Girls," which is a totally different story, set in the 1960s, about a cult in California. But similar theme to this book, no? - both about young women on the edge of society, outside looking in.

CLINE: Yeah. Evie, the narrator of "The Girls" is 14. She's very naive. And in many ways, she feels victimized by the world or suffers at these larger forces. And I really wanted with "The Guest" to create this character of Alex who really doesn't see herself as a victim and who's moving very purposefully through the world. But I do think they both feel adrift and are looking for some kind of existential home.

KELLY: There is a disconnect between the plenty of the setting - these people have everything - and the fact that no one, including Alex, seems to be having any fun. Has that been your experience of places like the Hamptons?

CLINE: I have not spent that much time out there, but I do remember I was really struck by the natural beauty. But then that beauty combined with this very interesting microcosm of power and wealth that seemed directly imported from the city and recreated to scale really interested me.

KELLY: Yeah. And as a novelist, so much to mine because there are all the rich people moving through that world. And then you write at length about all the people who are serving those rich people moving through the Hamptons.

CLINE: Right. And I think I was so interested in what is the desire of the wealthy characters in this book. And so much of it is the appearance of frictionlessness in their life. But then I was thinking, you know, who has to put in the labor to ensure this false reality of frictionlessness and endless pleasure? And those are kind of the domestic workers or the people like Alex, people who are brought in very specifically to perform this fake reality.

KELLY: You're making me think of the line you wrote about Alex. I think she's watching a gardener at work. And to your point about this life is supposed to be frictionless and serene and perfect, and yet it requires - was it a violent assault? - was that your words?

CLINE: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...By the gardeners...

CLINE: Something like that.

KELLY: ...Every day, clipping and pruning and mowing and raking and chlorinating the pools and all the rest, the violent assault that it takes to make it seem serene and frictionless.

CLINE: Right. And then it takes a kind of willful blindness to not see that labor, but that everyone kind of agrees to not see it.

KELLY: I want to end by circling back to where I began and the question about whether some people are vectors for instability. The character of Alex, she was utterly mesmerizing, and she was also really hard to root for. And I wonder why you chose to build a story around a character who doesn't seem to really want to do better or resolve her situation. She doesn't really evolve as the novel plays out.

CLINE: Yeah. I think I resist some of the classical narratives in a book or a movie that the character should learn something by the end, that there should be a moral, because I find life is so often not like that. I find that people often don't change. There isn't a moral to a lot of our experiences. And it really came down to this is going to be like a character study. We're going to see what this character sees. We're going to move with her through this world, and hopefully there's a tension that will carry you along.

KELLY: The novel is "The Guest." The author is Emma Cline. Emma Cline, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

CLINE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLANK RANGE SONG, "LAST CRASH LANDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.