Book Review | The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Jules and Will are set to be married on a secluded island off the Irish coast. For Jules, a magazine editor-in-chief, it is all about ‘creating the right optics.’ The problem is, reaching the island involves crossing choppy seas, miles from the mainland – and it’s effectively a mass grave, thought to be the site of a Viking massacre. So, it doesn’t quite scream ‘romance’, but maybe the rugged desolation is part of the appeal?

The happy couple, however, have only known each other a few months, and Jules recently received a hand-delivered note advising her that Will isn’t who she thinks she is. Brushing these concerns aside, she is determined to have her picture-perfect big day – and feature it in the magazine afterwards, of course.

Aside from the bride and groom, there is an ensemble cast of characters in the mix – a mess in a less tightly-woven narrative, but a technique that works well here with Foley’s sufficiently distinct voices. A large part of the story focuses on a sadistic clique of boys from Will’s elite boarding school childhood. When the men find themselves back together to attend the wedding, there’s something dark glittering under their schoolboy manners, a regression back to heady teenage days of mischief and mayhem. Only their high jinks have rather sinister undertones.

‘Here there’s the added danger of the whole island. The wildness of this place gets under your skin. These guests will feel themselves far from the normal moral codes of society, safe from the prying eyes of others. These men are ex–public schoolboys. They’ve spent much of their lives being forced to follow a strict set of rules that probably didn’t end with their leaving school: choices around what university to attend, what job to do, what sort of house to live in. In my experience those who have the greatest respect for the rules also take the most enjoyment in breaking them.’

There’s a Riot Club (disturbing drama about a loosely-fictionalised group of boys at Oxford University) kind of nastiness about the dynamic of the group, an aggressive, toxic masculinity that is all the more shocking for these being family men in their mid-thirties, with children, wives, and sensible jobs. It gives you the sense that some pretty terrible stuff must have gone down during their school days – which, of course, it has. And the ripple effects of childhood ‘fun’, of pranks gone wrong, go far and wide.

‘There wasn’t time for anger at first. Only for the huge, existential shock of it: the bottom dropping out of everything.’

It is a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing; characters announcing that various signs are ‘ominous’, from the cries of the native birds to the incoming storm. But the atmosphere of barely concealed doom is well crafted from the start, despite the island playing host to a supposedly joyful event. There are lots of backstories, hidden traumas to come to the surface – and it isn’t too difficult to figure out how everything ties into the plot at large – but it is still a careful juggle, and Foley pulls it off. An entertaining read for fans of the claustrophobic and drama-driven psychological thriller.

***.5

2 thoughts on “Book Review | The Guest List by Lucy Foley

  1. A really good review, Rose. I also gave the same rating. The characters were very unlikable in my opinion but the four ushers were the intolerable. You’re absolutely right in describing it as toxic masculinity. The atmosphere though was good and the twists did keep me on the edge of my seat.

    Liked by 1 person

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