The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

A Deliciously Dark Turn on the Cozy Mystery

For all its delightfully cynical evisceration of a vapid social set, this novel remains a twisty and propulsive page-turner filled with gasp-worthy surprises. Foley has delivered a decadent beachside romp that handily evolves into a wildly entertaining satirical thriller by its shocking finale.
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • Genre: Mystery Thriller
  • First Publication: 2020
  • Language: English
  • Setting: Ireland
  • Characters: Will Slater, Julia Keegan

With her smash hit “The Guest List,” Lucy Foley takes the cozy mystery novel and gives it a wickedly thrilling upgrade. This modern whodunit trades quaint village greens for a glamorous island setting and the genteel wisdom of Miss Marple for a slew of young, mordantly cynical narrators. The result is a compulsively readable page-turner that brilliantly subverts the genre’s traditional charms to expose the darker malignancies festering beneath outwardly picturesque surfaces.

The Intriguing Premises

The action kicks off at the lavish wedding of Jules, a former magazine publisher, and Will, a reclusive but fabulously wealthy TV star. They’ve brought their most intimate circle of friends and families to a remote and atmospherically moody island off the Irish coast. It’s a Gatsby-level extravaganza, sparing no expense, from the stunning cliff-top venue to the bespoke cocktails and gourmet cuisine.

But despite the fairytale trappings, it quickly becomes clear that nearly every guest relations is shadowed by bodies buried resentments, seething envies, and unsavory secrets. The bridesmaids despise the bride’s nouveau riche vulgarity. The bride’s disaffected parents barely mask generations of middle-class aspiration and resentments. The groomsmen are a rogues’ gallery of preening malcontents bound chiefly by substance abuse issues.

Amidst all the glittering resentments roiling just below the immaculate island resort grounds, a storm rolls in and a body is discovered. From that fateful moment, Foley cycles through her cast’s contrasting viewpoints to slowly unspool a delicious Gordian knot of plausible backstories, suspicious characters, and potential culprits. Is it a vengeful ex looking to sabotage the nuptials? A resentful member of the bride’s juiced-up wedding party crew? Or did one of the glamorous couple’s sordid secrets simply follow them to their dreamy island refuge?

The Compelling Narrators

While the central mystery is thoroughly gripping, the real pleasure of “The Guest List” lies in the cringe humor and painfully keen insights offered through its dueling narrators. Foley’s ensemble cast are all casually horrible people revealed through a series of lacerating character portraits. There’s the ludicrously pretentious children’s YouTube performers, the petty jealousies of family members stewing in their born-into privilege, and the grotesque displays of nouveau riche excess.

Yet Foley renders their plights with such mordant wit that you find yourself guiltily enjoying the existential torments unfolding amidst all the luxury. The shallow bridezilla obsessing over every last detail of her special day makes for a delightfully loathsome anti-heroine. And the rogues’ gallery of dissolute groomsmen railing against their dwindling relevance in the social media era provide some cutting generational satire.

Through it all, Foley’s narrators strike a perfect balance of world-weary cynicism and dishy pettiness without ever lapsing into caricature. You delight in their brilliantly rendered disdain and their astute observational asides, even as their bottomless reservoirs of self-absorption render them deeply flawed. It’s a masterclass in the timeless art of the unreliable narrator.

A Boldly Modern Setting

While the isolated island wedding party setting may seem like a contemporary riff on the closed-circle mystery format, Foley deftly leans into her gothic inspirations while giving a bracingly modern twist. Yes, there are the prerequisite thunderstorms swirling in to cut off communication with the mainland and the damp, chilling ambiance etched into every stone edifice. But the island setting is also revealed to be an artfully curated facsimile of historic grandeur created solely to dazzle the affluent and image-conscious.

Amidst the simulated antiquity, Foley skewers the shallowness of modern privilege culture with her biting descriptions of the decadent spectacle unfolding over one fateful weekend. Guests sip whimsically named cocktails crafted from rare botanical essences while snacking on amuse-bouches harvested by artisanal foragers. They stroll the elegantly overgrown grounds in vaguely unsettling period costumes assembled by personal stylists. All the while, the island’s few working-class staffers scurry about tending to their every need with silent efficiency while being rendered nearly invisible.

The ostentatious displays of rarefied luxury and privilege give the island setting a strangely disquieting atmosphere that’s the perfect backdrop for mayhem. And Foley allows the dissonance between the guests’ lofty affectations and their craven banalities to steadily curdle into a delicious kind of dread as dark long-buried revelations begin to surface. By the time the shockers start coming, the reader is thoroughly unsettled.

Razor-Sharp Social Commentary

Of course, part of Foley’s masterstroke is her refusal to make any of her characters into stock heroes or villains. Instead, she subtly implicates the entire rotten core of an out-of-touch elite class that has simply become too insulated in its privilege. Whether it’s the starving personal assistant or the resentful wedding planner, we’re constantly reminded of all the invisible labor and systemic inequities that make such a lavish fantasy possible.

The commentary around class divides and escapist self-delusion is wrapped up in pitch-perfect satire of millennial culture. You’ll cringe at the name-drops of elite graduate programs and obscure lifestyle brands. You’ll roll your eyes at the pretentious posturing of the guests trying to outdo each other with curated personas. And you won’t be able to resist a chuckle at their desperate longing to be perceived as unique while rigidly conforming to the same stultifying status symbols.

Yet amidst the biting wit, Foley also offers a searing critique on the consequences of rampant narcissism and the dehumanizing effects of social media. Her characters are all, in their own ways, chasing after hollow avatars, unable to confront the messy truths of who they really are beneath the instagram filters. And as their perfect weekend island getaway descends into chaos, it’s the vapid superficiality of their privilege-fueled malaise that emerges as the true villain driving the murderous events.

Clever Genre Twists

All that delightfully cynical savagery would add up to little more than a literary bonfire of vanities if it weren’t for Foley’s evident mastery of the traditional mystery format. Just as her story takes on a well-worn genre template, she deftly subverts expectations with clever twists and refreshingly original narrative gambits. Red herrings and implausible scenarios are mercilessly mocked even as she lays enough plausibly misdirecting clues to keep you feverishly turning pages well into the night.

The shifting perspectives create a brilliant prism effect, where every character’s hidden agendas and ulterior motives are tantalizingly glimpsed from the corners of different players’ viewpoints. You’re constantly being led to suspect one potential culprit, only to have the karmic balance shift with a new reveal. And in the grand tradition of Christie and other whodunit royalty, Foley buries subtle clues with a skillfully deceptive hand so that the finale’s shocking conclusion manages to be both completely unexpected yet oddly inevitable in hindsight.

A Cravenly Delicious Read

So no, “The Guest List” is certainly not the sort of escapist cozy you’ll want to indulge in after a long day of knitting by the fire. But if you’re hankering for a deliciously savage takedown of modern privilege that still delivers as a fiendishly clever suspense tale, you’ll devour this novel whole. Foley’s voice is that of a cunning satirist armed with a dagger’s aim at the rotted-out mores of the elite and well-polished surface obsessions of the instagram era.

Yet for all its delightfully cynical evisceration of a vapid social set, The Guest List by Lucy Foley remains a twisty and propulsive page-turner filled with gasp-worthy surprises. Foley has delivered a decadent beachside romp that handily evolves into a wildly entertaining satirical thriller by its shocking finale. Like the lavish island wedding at its dark heart, “The Guest List” is one singularly memorable event you’ll be frantically dissecting and second-guessing long after it’s finale fades to black.

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  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • Genre: Mystery Thriller
  • First Publication: 2020
  • Language: English

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For all its delightfully cynical evisceration of a vapid social set, this novel remains a twisty and propulsive page-turner filled with gasp-worthy surprises. Foley has delivered a decadent beachside romp that handily evolves into a wildly entertaining satirical thriller by its shocking finale.The Guest List by Lucy Foley