I didn’t appreciate how much this novel truly annoyed me until I was bemoaning to a friend how it spent some 25 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Thinking I didn’t like it because it is basically fluff (which it is), she said, “Well, look how long Da Vinci Code was on the bestseller list,” and I shot back, “Da Vinci Code was a masterpiece next to this book!” And I stand by that. I may have issues with The Da Vinci Code, but it’s an entertaining diversion, and I didn’t start rolling my eyes with purpose until about half-way through it. The Guest List, on the other hand, had me rolling my eyes all the way back on page 6, when a wedding planner shares the astute observation, “It’s all about the moment, a wedding. All about the day. It’s not really about the marriage at all, in spite of what everyone says.” Given that level of insight, I should have known what I was getting into.
The Guest List takes place on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, where an online magazine publisher named Jules has planned to marry her devastatingly handsome and oh-so-charming TV-personality fiancé Will. This seems like a solid set-up for a classic locked-room mystery, where somebody is murdered and we have to figure out who did it, right? Not really, because although the author reveals right away that somebody dies, she keeps the “who” and the “how” a mystery until the end. Except . . . it’s not terribly difficult to guess who is going to be murdered. I don’t want to intentionally spoil anything (in case you really insist on reading this novel, which I don’t recommend), but it seems pretty obvious who it will be when nearly every character in the book has some sort of grudge against one individual.
The obviousness of the plot doesn’t bother me that much, though. Even a simple mystery can be fun if the characters are compelling, or the dialogue is clever, or the writing is strong. The Guest List fails on all accounts. (Speaking of clever, I lost track of how many times Foley calls one of her characters clever. Someone please buy this author a Thesaurus.) Here are some of my complaints, in no particular order:
- The writing is on par with a first-year writing student. Sample: “I lift my head fully away from his shoulder. I feel the distance between us expanding now, metaphorically as well as physically.” Wait, so physical distance is a metaphor for emotional distance??? You don’t say.
- The characters are one dimensional. The novel is told in multiple first-person narratives, with Jules, her half-sister (bridesmaid), Aoife (wedding planner), Johnno (best man), and Hannah (guest of Jules’ best friend, Charlie) all taking turns sharing their experiences at the event. I won’t say there is no difference between those voices, but the differences are superficial. They are supposed to be very different people, but I can’t say I’d be able to tell the difference between Aoife and Hannah, for example, based on voice alone.
- It contains continuity errors. This is a huge one, given that the novel is a mystery, and continuity errors can be interpreted as clues. I caught an error on page 143, where one character is referenced in place of another by mistake. The editor missed it, which is maybe forgivable, except an even bigger one happens later. One of the groomsmen (doesn’t matter which one as they are interchangeable) disappears on the marshes and is never brought up again. Unless that’s the setup for the sequel (it isn’t), that one is really egregious.
- The structure is inconsistent. As I mentioned, the story is told in multiple first-person narratives, by the five characters mentioned above. Their stories never overlap, with one picking up where the previous one left off. That is, until we get to the climax, when the author 1) introduces an additional character’s perspective and 2) has the 5 characters relay what was happening at a key moment (with each character’s segment ending “And then the lights go out,” which is supposed to be impactful but strikes me instead as lazy). Switching structure this late in the game says to me that the structure as a whole should have been revisited. If you have to make exceptions, maybe it isn’t working.
- The coincidences are over the top. People who complain that the movie Crash was contrived are warned to stay away. I’m okay with coincidences (I’m a Dickens fan, after all), but the final one involving Hannah was completely unnecessary.
Overall, The Guest List reads like the novelization of a film, and no doubt it will be adapted as such, whether it be a theatrical or made-for-television release. And you know what, an adaptation could actually be decent, since a screenwriter will have the opportunity to clean up the continuity errors and punch up the dialogue, and a strong cast may be able to breathe life into the lackluster characters. It may be heresy for a book lover to say this, but I recommend skipping the novel and waiting for the movie instead.