A great beach read for a beachless summer
With an island setting, a celebrity wedding, and a body count, The Guest List would be this summer’s hot beach read if any of us could to go the beach. British author Lucy Foley wrote three unremarkable historical novels before switching genres and landing on the bestseller list with her crackling 2019 thriller The Hunting Party, which read like a cross between Agatha Christie and Donna Tartt. The Guest List wisely sticks to the formula that propelled The Hunting Party to its shocking conclusion: old friends (and frenemies) reunite in a scenic, secluded locale, where they reveal long-buried secrets and avenge ancient grudges over a few action-packed days.
Though The Guest List is not as tightly wound as its predecessor, Foley stokes the same tensions between locals and outsiders, nature and civilization, history and memory, while changing enough details to keep readers guessing. Instead of getting snowed in at a hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, the large cast of characters find themselves marooned on an Irish island, the venue for a no-expenses-spared destination wedding. Instead of a posh university, a prestigious boy’s boarding school, where Something Bad happened years before, links them together.
The groom, Will, has gone on to television fame as a Bear Grylls-esque survivalist. His bride, Jules, is a career-minded lifestyle editor and Internet influencer. But they’re less of an odd couple than they initially seem; “I remember being a little surprised when I realized his permanently brown face wasn’t actually due to the constant exposure to the elements but to Sisley’s self-tan, the same one I use,” Jules says of her intended. Their registry includes a £200 scented candle, a delicious detail.
Inis an Amplóra—Cormorant Island, to the English guests—is no tropical paradise. It contains quicksand-like peat bogs, treacherous sea caves, ghost stories, and, of course, cormorants, those avian avatars of greed, bad luck and evil. All three abound on this two-mile-long “lump of granite” moored off the Connemara coast. There’s no cell service, and, while the isolated venue offers every luxury and modern convenience, actual civilization is a turbulent ferry ride away.
The perspective switches between unreliable (and frequently drunk or high) narrators, including Aiofe, the all-seeing wedding planner; Johnno, the loose-cannon best man; Olivia, the emotionally fragile bridesmaid; and Hannah, the middle-class outsider who knows exactly one person among the 150 fur-coated and top-hatted guests. “I’m fascinated by—and a little bit suspicious of—people who have made loads of money,” she confesses. “To me they’re like another species altogether, a breed of sleek and dangerous big cats.”
Everyone’s a potential murderer or murder victim, and the question of whodunit—and to whom—keeps you reading despite some clunky prose and dizzying flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Foley gleefully infuses the familiar apparati of the wedding industrial complex—a debauched stag party, for example, or a cake knife—with foreboding menace. “The bride asked for it to be sharpened specially—madness really, as a knife like this is really meant for cutting through meat,” the chef complains. “It’ll go through that sponge like it’s butter.”
At a time when weddings, vacations, and beaches are off the table for many readers, The Guest List offers a vicarious plus-one. But the novel’s mood of physical and psychological isolation, and the vertiginous house-of-cards atmosphere of carefully cultivated beauty teetering on imminent collapse, feels strangely appropriate for our times.
“Mine is a profession in which you orchestrate happiness,” Aiofe muses. “You can’t control more than a single day. But you can control one of them. Twenty-four hours can be curated. A wedding day is a neat little parcel of time in which you can create something whole and perfect to be cherished for a lifetime, a pearl from a broken necklace.” It’s a fitting metaphor for the fiction writer’s art: holding joy and sorrow, life and death in one’s hand–and getting paid for it.
(William Morrow, June 2, 2020)