Happy Friday! Man, it feels good to say that. What a week. However, the one awesome thing about this week was getting a copy of The Guest List in the mail from my secondhand book online shop, Better World Books, which donates a book to an underprivileged community every time you buy a book, and has a massive grant fund for libraries. Go check them out!
Anyway (sorry for the aside, I just love those guys), I was super excited to read The Guest List because it was recommended to me based on my tastes for Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, and compounded that recommendation with my new favorite movie Knives Out. I am a Lucy Foley newbie, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this exceeded all expectations by far.
From the Publisher:
The bride ‧ The plus one ‧ The best man ‧ The wedding planner ‧ The bridesmaid ‧ The body
On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.
But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.
And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?
As shown in the first line, this book is told from five points of view: Bride Julie, who is in control but hides a simmering temper and doubts of her groom to me; Hannah, the wife of Man of Honor Charlie, who is uncomfortably close to the bride; best man Johnno, whose history with the groom leads down a dark path; wedding planner Aoife, who is cool and efficient, but is hiding something on this desolate island; bridesmaid Olivia, only 19 and hiding a recent trauma; and the body – brief points of view from the one who will be dead by the end of the night.
Basically every single character in this book has a rich and dangerous backstory, with bride and groom Julie and Will bringing them all together for a fateful and disastrous night on an island populated by ghosts.
What I Loved:
- The moody atmosphere. This is a very simplistic heading, but rings true – throughout The Guest List, there is a sense of foreboding. The island, Inis Amploir (Cormorant Island), is rumored to be haunted by ghosts of those who fell into the bogs and never came out, and is wicked hard to get to with even slightly stormy weather (it helps that cormorants as an animal are an omen of ill luck and bad weather at sea). From the sea, it appears to be a hulking dark rock with no life on it. As Hannah describes it from the boat ride, “… a bluish smudge on the horizon, shaped like a flattened anvil… I can’t help feeling that the dark shape of it seems to hunch and glower.” Then of course, on the day of the wedding, the storm comes rolling in off of the sea, despite all predictions stating otherwise. Howling wind, angry waters, and flickering lights, oh my. When the lights go out halfway through the wedding and a scream is heard, the reader has been primed for it and is ready for the big reveal.
- The characters. While The Guest List has been billed as a thriller, it is more of a psychological study than anything, and at the end of the day, everyone has their problems. I can’t say there is one *likeable* character in here – even the more innocent / innocuous ones (Hannah, Olivia, Aoife) have personality quirks or secrets that make it harder for the reader to empathize as much as they would like. And yet… Lucy Foley does the impossible, and makes you connect with these characters, all of them: From self absorbed bridezilla Julie whose attempts to hide an explosive temper are very relatable; to Johnno, the best man who is always the butt of the joke and was the quintessential scholarship kid. These characters all have secrets and neuroses, and they are so much more fun and interesting to read about because of it.
- The split time format. On the flip side, I also think that The Guest List does a good job at maintaining a low level of suspense through both the mood (as explained above) and the fact that the chapters bounce between the night before the wedding and the day of, when the murder happens. While a lot of other reviewers thought this was confusing, I actually thought it worked really well to keep you on your toes and piqued your interest as to what the h*** was going on. The sections are all very clearly labelled, so there are no issues with confusion as long as you pay attention to the chapter headings.
What Didn’t Work as Well:
- The uneven multiple perspectives. As I said earlier, The Guest List is from the points of view of five (and a half) different people: Julie, Hannah, Johnno, Olivia, and Aoife, with a brief interlude into the victim’s perspective. I loved all of their voices, and felt that the layered narrative really helped wrap this book into a neat package that was easy to understand and enjoy. However, I do think that not all narrative voices were equal, and would have loved to hear more from some of the parties; Aoife and Julie in particular. (This is more of a personal preference, since I actually believe they get vastly similar page time, but I felt some of the voices could have used more background and depth.)
- Some less-Explored conflicts. So, as you can imagine, here is a book chock full of conflicts and tensions. Family issues, long-past dramas, broken hearts, the whole shebang. Some of the conflicts I wish were better explored include Julie’s relationship with her sometimes absent, but very influential father, Olivia and Julie’s slowly changing sisterly bond, Charlie’s anger issues when he drinks. While none of these are crucial to the plot, Foley manages to get readers invested in not entirely likeable characters, to the point where you want to understand their psyche entirely.
I have to admit, if I were a more regular reader of thrillers, maybe this would be too slow for me. However, I think that I was very appropriately directed to The Guest List as someone who loves closed universe murder mysteries similar to Agatha Christie, where there is a slow burning thrill and deep character study, with unexpected twists and motives around every corner. I would definitely recommend this to people who appreciate twisted psychology as compared to “jump out of the corner” thrills. Fans of gothics will definitely enjoy the chilling atmosphere, whispering caves, and deadly marshes, and if you liked Lord of the Flies or other “boys will be boys” wolf pack psychology, this will be a treat for you.
Let’s chat about this, since I have a feeling this is one of those fun polarizing books.