Imagine this: you and your friends go on a celebratory weekend holiday to a luxurious yet remote retreat. You all go way back: to university, to secondary school, perhaps even before that. Yet inevitably your lives have drifted apart since then. You’ve all grown up, you’ve all changed, which makes it all the more awkward when everyone tries and fails to fit back into the roles you used to occupy. Maybe your dowdy best friend is now more successful than you, and you try not to be jealous. Perhaps your loving husband is still smitten on that one friend whom he never really got over. And you all share a secret that you don’t talk about, because you go way back. But then someone turns up dead, and the list of suspects is limited to your closest friends.
This is the premise of both The Hunting Party and The Guest List, Lucy Foley’s first and second novel respectively. It’s not an original concept, but Foley does it well even if both books are uncomfortably similar, from the supremely good-looking husband to the bossy, hypercapable wife, to the anxious and depressed sidekick and the businesslike manager-with-a-secret. It’s the relationships between the various friends that makes the novels interesting.
In The Hunting Party, an upper-crusty group of friends leaves their comfortable London lair to celebrate the New Year in style in a remote lodge in the Scottish Highlands. At first all appears well, even if they are cut off from the outside world by a vicious snow storm. But soon the guests start to drink, they start to party, and old tensions resurface. And then one of the guests goes missing.
The Guest List has a similar premise: on a windswept island off the coast of Ireland, successful magazine editor Julia is about to get married to the love of her life, famous TV star Will (he’s clearly modeled off Bear Grylls, though his name is never mentioned). They make a beautiful and enviable couple, but on the night of the party one of the attendees is brutally slain.
What makes the novels even more similar is that Foley employs a similar narrative structure both times: we see the events through the eyes of multiple guests, both within the inner circle and outside of it, but also from the perspective of the caretakers/managers of the respective estates. In both novels we don’t discover who the dead person is straightaway, and especially in the case of The Hunting Party this feels artificial and forced. They’re so similar, in fact, that I initially wondered why Foley bothered to write the second one (aside from the fact that the first one sold well). In all honesty, though, both novels have different conclusions and especially The Guest List kept me guessing for a good long time. I also loved the way Foley drew the characters; they’re not all equally convincing but we’ve all met people like them, people who feel enviable on the surface, with their wealth and good looks, but up close they’re a mess. It’s almost gleeful in its description of the insufferable Boarding School/Oxbridge cliques that populate the novels; the presence of the ‘normal’ caretaker keeps things grounded.
Despite some minor quibbles I tremendously enjoyed both books. Foley’s third outing, The Paris Apartment, came out only last month, and it has a different premise from these two books. I kind of can’t wait to read it.