I’ve always had pleasant experiences at weddings — in fact, I love going to weddings! — but I’m glad I wasn’t at the wedding of Will and Jules on a remote island off the coast of Ireland in Lucy Foley’s 2020 novel, The Guest List. I actually read her 2019 novel, The Hunting Party, last year (and reviewed it here!), and the two books are similar in terms of their overall premise. Characters with sketchy, secretive pasts assemble on a remote island impacted by a storm, and over the course of a number of days, the secrets manifest, wherein X number of characters have clear motive to kill someone. Narratively, both books are also structured the same. We know someone is likely dead at the beginning of the book, and then the narrative jumps backward to the day before (or whatever the case) leading up to the crap hitting the fan moment. The way the past is handled is also the same where we follow a certain number of characters through short chapters following their thoughts and actions. It isn’t until quite literally the final few pages that we learn both the identity of the homicide victim and the perpetrator. But I don’t mind that these two books are structured and plotted similarly, to be honest! It’s a good formula, why mess with it? This book kept my interest and kept me wondering who the killer would turn out to be. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
In The Guest List, our predominant characters are: Jules and Will, the soon to be married couple, where Jules is a domineering type with anger and insecurity issues, and Will seems like an all-too perfect playboy with a famous television show, but a seedier past lurks behind the façade; Hannah and Charlie, who left two kids behind to come to this wedding, where Charlie is the de facto best man for Jules, with a secret he’d rather Hannah not find out, and Hannah being a mom now, leaving behind her party days, and being the stranger among the group, is uncomfortable in her own skin, and, there is something we yet don’t know about her sister, Alice; Olivia, the half-sister of Jules, who also has a past we don’t quite know yet, but we do know she cuts herself; Johnno, the messy, loser friend of Will’s, who keeps hinting at a shared horrible secret between him and Will; and finally, Aoife, who along with her husband, own the island and are planning the wedding, and as you might have guessed, Aoife also hints at past secrets.
The throughline for all of these secrets is Will. As it turns out, his charming, affable ways are indeed a façade. Let’s go ahead and roll-out the tale of the tape on his hidden past:
- Will, Johnno, and the other older boys of a posh school, which Will’s dad happened to be the headmaster of, played this game called “Survival” with younger classmates where they’d essentially kidnap them in the middle of the night, blindfold and tie them up, and leave them in the middle of the wilderness for shits and giggles. They did that with a boy who idolized Will because the boy stumbled across stolen test papers they were using to cheat, except it is heavily implied that Will purposefully left the boy by the beach where the tide was coming in that night. The boy couldn’t free himself in time, drowned and died. It was ruled an accident. That incident haunted Johnno ever since, but Will had zero remorse.
- Will dated Hannah’s sister, Alice, in college, but when Alice decided to focus more on her studies and lost interest in Will, she broke up with him. He filmed them having sex and then used that as revenge porn to pass around the university. Alice thought her life was over, and indeed, she ended her own life through suicide. Again, no remorse from Will, and in fact, the revenge porn was still a point of laughter among Will’s friends from the same school (that’s how Hannah comes to find out about it).
- Will was using a fake name to find dates via dating apps and ended up matching with Olivia, who was also using a fake name coming off of her first love and break-up. They hooked up, and Will got her pregnant. When she messaged him about it, he “ghosted” her. Olivia’s mother drove her to the abortion clinic. Later, when Olivia met Jules’ new boyfriend, it was Will and Will pretended they’d never met before. Again, he has no remorse and believes nobody would believe her anyway.
- You know about the first mentioned incident with the young boy dying by intentional drowning; well, that young boy turned out to be Aoife’s brother. She put in a bid to host Jules’ wedding (and drastically discounted it to make the bid appealing) purely to lure Will out to the island to “talk” to him.
- Just in case things were to go south with Jules, who was the editor of a hugely successful online women’s magazine, The Download (great name!), Will also had filmed her in compromising sexual acts.
- Will sabotaged his best friend, Johnno’s, opportunity to be on the show that ends up making Will famous and was Johnno’s idea in the first place.
In other words, Will is a piece of human garbage, buuuut, we still can’t murder him, okay? However, as you can see, we have a long list of potential people willing to kill him. So, who was it? Johnno seems the most obvious suspect because of his reputation as a loser and a drunk. But what about Olivia and Hannah? And then when Jules overhears what happened with Olivia and Will, coupled with the rage she’s already shown as a bridezilla? But it was Aoife! I actually thought it might be her — seriously! — but for a different motive. I didn’t pick up on the potential younger brother angle; I thought she was going to be one of those psychopaths who killed Will because he was disrupting her plan as the wedding planner, trying to make the one perfect night. Alas. However, Johnno takes the fall for it because he discovers Will’s body, and because he still loved Will, pulled the knife out trying to save him. He was caught “red-handed.”
This was a fun, easy one-day binge (if you’re someone like me privileged enough to be able to devote a day to reading) at 311 pages. I thought it was an interesting plot filled with myriad subplots that were interconnected to create a strong list of uh, killer contenders. Hannah and Olivia were the most likable of the “guest list.” Jules turned out to be a sympathetic character in many ways, primarily her awful parents, but she was also such a jerk to Hannah and Olivia in that aforementioned bridezilla way. Even Charlie turned out to be a scumbag. We learn that he had sex with Jules right after Hannah had their first child; in other words, he wasn’t getting enough sex is his lame excuse. But even prior to learning that, Charlie wasn’t likeable. He practically abandoned Hannah on the island once they got there to either fawn all over Jules or to be “one of the guys” again, often throwing Hannah under the cool bus to fit in. Or to put it as Will kept saying, which I think was his way of trying to defend all of his nefarious actions: “boys will be boys.” Yuck.
I’ve read two Foley books and I’ve liked two Foley books. The Paris Apartment seems to deviate from what I said earlier is a winning formula, but that’s okay, I’m still interested in reading it.