The Guest Is the Anxious-Girl Book of the Summer

6 minute read

These are independent reviews of the products mentioned, but TIME receives a commission when purchases are made through affiliate links at no additional cost to the purchaser.

In recent years, the “hot-girl book” has taken over a certain corner of the internet, one where literature, fashion, and existential dread meet and manifest in the form of aspirational social media posts. Building on trending concepts like “hot-girl summer” and the “hot-girl walk,” a “hot-girl book”—also sometimes referred to as a “sad-girl book”—is easy to recognize. It’s most often a work of literary fiction in which a beautiful (typically thin), sad and/or detached woman (typically white) navigates personal dramas. These are the zeitgeisty books that so-called it girls, influencers, and those who emulate them are often spotted reading, written by authors like Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh.

But this summer, it’s all about the anxious girl book—books that take elements of the “hot girl” genre but add a searing dose of stress with higher stakes and looming crises. In R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface, a writer’s ambition leads her to an extreme act of deception that leaves her constantly vulnerable to exposure. In Ruth Madievsky’s All-Night Pharmacy, two sisters embark on a risky night of debauchery that ends in horrifying violence, before one of them mysteriously disappears. And in Emma Cline’s The Guestthe must-read anxious-girl book of the season—a grifter struggles to stay afloat in the deceptively easeful world of summertime on Long Island.

The book covers for Yellowface and All Night Pharmacy side by side on a background that looks like condensation
It's the season of anxious-girl books, from R.F. Kuang's 'Yellowface' to Ruth Madievsky's 'All-Night Pharmacy'

In anxious-girl books, the protagonists work to project an image of cool as they verge ever nearer to a breakdown. The Guest uses our cultural obsession with wealth and luxury to salt its protagonist’s wounds as she struggles to stay afloat. The novel takes place in an affluent town on the East End of Long Island (read: the Hamptons) and follows Alex—a 22-year-old outsider hiding from the ugly reality of her life—while she leeches off its ultra-rich yet oblivious residents.

Since the novel was released in May, posts about the book have garnered more than 153 million views on TikTok, with 5 million of those specifically devoted to its ambiguous ending. Emma Roberts selected The Guest as her July pick for the Belletrist book club. Hundreds of Instagram posts have flashed the book jacket’s grabby, bright green and blue art.

While the book is a page-turner literally set at the beach, it’s not a stereotypical beach read. Cline, who broke out with the Manson Family-inspired novel The Girls in 2016—itself a big book of the moment at the time—offers a sharp, nuanced approach to an outwardly frothy premise, submerging her readers in an anxiety-ridden world where class struggle seethes under the surface.

Read More: 25 New Books You Need to Read This Summer

Leading up to the book’s start, Alex is a sex worker with no money, no friends, a strong interest in drugs, and a tendency toward kleptomania. She’s alienated her roommates to the point of eviction and angered her dangerous ex for reasons that Cline holds close. Things start to look up, however, when she meets Simon, a wealthy older man who whisks her away to his vacation house for the last few weeks of summer. With Simon, Alex has one job: to be beautiful, charming, and accommodating of his ego and needs. In exchange, she has full access to his home and lifestyle of unattainable luxury, with meals prepared by a private chef and a new wardrobe full of expensive clothes. Finally, it seems, Alex has the space to breathe—that is until boredom and complacency lead her to make a misstep at a dinner party that embarrasses Simon so much that he sends her off with a one-way ticket back to Manhattan. But Alex, who has nowhere else to go, has no intention of giving up so easily. She’s determined to win back Simon’s affections and the physical safety of their relationship at his annual Labor Day party—she just has to find a way to wing it in town for the five days until the event. Summoning all of her wiles, she spends the week wandering from house shares to barbecues to beach clubs, passing for a lighthearted resident while leaving chaos in her wake.

Cline captures Alex’s unnerving presence with razor-sharp precision. A constant state of discomfort haunts the young woman and, consequently, everyone who comes into contact with her. Alex is prone to unseemly eye infections, unthinking betrayals, and careless destruction. She leaves an acquaintance in a dire work situation after he shows her kindness, toys with the affections of a vulnerable teen, and borrows a toddler to gain access to a beach club.

Read More: The Best Books of 2023 So Far

Alex’s movements create a deep sense of dread for the reader—as the pages turn, our anxiety rises. Even the novel’s ambiguous ending—the most debated part of the book, and one that only adds to its unsettling quality—is less unsatisfying than it is a final fraying of the nerves. With The Guest, Cline taps into something darker than the romantic melancholy of the hot, sad girl; she dares readers who eagerly consume literature about sexy messiness to reckon with a character who’s so singularly focused on surviving that she’s willing to destroy her life and the lives of those around her to do so.

And that’s what makes The Guest so captivating. Cline may have written a book about a hot, sad girl—but she’s put her in a car headed for a nasty crash, and we can’t look away. The sharply realized novel is as intoxicating and heady as a long day spent on a sunny beach, and this summer, nothing is more delicious than a story that unleashes chaos into the otherwise easy living of the super rich.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Cady Lang at