The Guest List: A Review

I recently read Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, a novel take on the crime genre, and found it a middling experience. The book showed a lot of potential and was generally engaging, but it suffered from a number of strange structural choices that took me out of it. I then learned that Foley had written a second book, The Guest List, which was far better received, and I was impressed enough to go and check it out. It certainly is better, but it still retains (to a lesser extent) the unnecessary structure issues that reduce the story’s impact. Most of this book is a tense, engaging thriller, but it falls short at the last hurdle.

The Guest List sees a number of people gather on an island off the coast of Ireland to celebrate a wedding. The ambitious magazine publisher Jules is getting married to the charming TV star Will, and they’ve invited old friends and family along for the occasion. However, as guests start to mingle, old resentments, jealousies and untold secrets begin to surface, and the night ends with a murder on the island. But who has died, and who is responsible?

There’s a lot of love in the reading community for Hannah, by far the most sympathetic character, and I share it (although I’d have loved to have seen more of Jules and Will’s fathers too – they’re very underserved).

This novel retains the same novel point of view and time elements, letting the reader into the thoughts of multiple characters at different points, and taking place in both the run-up to the murder and its immediate aftermath. This time, we share the viewpoints of Jules, her younger sister and bridesmaid Olivia, best man Johnno, plus-one Hannah and wedding planner Aoife, and Foley does well distinguishing them all – in The Hunting Party, most of the characters were just variants of the ‘unpleasant entitled 30-something’, but the wedding dynamic offers more room to diversify and the opportunity is seized. There’s a lot of love in the reading community for Hannah, by far the most sympathetic character, and I share it (although I’d have loved to have seen more of Jules and Will’s fathers too – they’re very underserved).

Foley is excellent at conjuring up a sense of place, and she does it beautifully here. The Irish island is a haunting setting, with the old graveyard, the all-consuming bog and the cliffs some of the landmarks that help build this sense of atmosphere. The original plan was to set it on a Greek island, but I’m glad we wound up here instead – the landscape suits the dark tale Foley weaves much better. We get a good amount of time to explore it too, both with our characters and in the post-murder sections (which are mercifully far fewer than in the first book).

As before, the book is a slow-burn and then it races to its climax – so much is dropped on us in the final 20 pages or so, and it could have been paced far more effectively.

I complained that the victim in The Hunting Party was much too obvious, much too early – that’s not the case here, although the few post-murder sections of the narrative really gave it away sooner than I suspect Foley intended. The character work (for the few characters who are afforded much attention) is strong, but there’s not enough to it to sustain the book until its conclusion otherwise. As before, the book is a slow-burn and then it races to its climax – so much is dropped on us in the final 20 pages or so, and it could have been paced far more effectively. Much gets lost along the way, including a character who goes missing in the post-murder section of the book who Foley never actually finds.

The problem with the use of first-person perspectives here is that there’s no reason for the characters to conceal most of the things we come to learn in their own minds, and it feels like it’s really the author who is deliberately withholding information. Concealing important details for no reason other than pushing the plot along doesn’t increase the tension – it just cheats the reader. When we find out why the person was killed, I was frustrated because I had essentially no chance of ever getting to the conclusion myself, and that’s not fun (also, there’s a huge error – we’re told something when the murderer is revealed that is completely incorrect). Coupled with this, in order to produce motives, we start to border on contrivance towards the book’s end – The Guest List reached a level of coincidence that failed to convince.

It’s still an enjoyable read and one I’d lean towards recommending, but I can’t push it if you want a good crime book, because it falls too short there.

I read The Guest List with a lot of good will, but I am frustrated again by the end experience. Foley is at her best with the character and setting work, and she serves up an engaging tale that builds on the foundation laid by The Hunting Party. But it also repeats many of that book’s faults, failing to maintain itself without cheap trickery by the author. It’s still an enjoyable read and one I’d lean towards recommending, but I can’t push it if you want a good crime book, because it falls too short there.

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