Breaking the Rules: The Guest List by Lucy Foley
- July 16, 2020
- C. Michele Dorsey
Instead of staying indoors and watching Hamilton during the July fourth weekend, I practiced social distancing by heading for the hammock and a summer read. I chose The Guest List by Lucy Foley, which is set on an island off the west coast of Ireland. I’m very partial to islands, having written two books set on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’m also a huge fan of the Wild Atlantic Way where I traveled last year and was eager to return, albeit by hammock.
The Guest List takes place during an elaborate and exclusive weekend wedding when an unexpected coastal storm strikes. Weddings are notorious for high conflict, so naturally, a murder takes place.
With so much to recommend it, you won’t be surprised to hear that I loved the book. Foley is a gifted writer, equally as talented at describing setting dripping with atmosphere as she is at creating complex characters, who simultaneously can be flawed yet likable and sympathetic. She manages to transport her readers deftly to the place she wants them to experience the story and in the shoes of the character she wants them to be standing in.
Now I understand why it’s called the Whispering Cave. The high water has changed the acoustics in here so that this time everything we say is whispered back to us, as though someone’s standing there in the shadows, repeating every word. It’s hard to believe there isn’t. I find myself turning to check, every so often, to make certain we’re alone.
I hated to see The Guest List end, which for me is the measure of a good read. But like most writers, I can’t read a book without observing the techniques and style of the author. Writers get a double bang when reading a book. They enjoy the story while they learn about their craft.
Nothing pleases me more than an author who breaks the rules and pulls it off. My rebellious nature has me rooting any time someone tosses convention. Lucy Foley did not disappoint me. How many times have I sat at a conference or workshop where a well-intentioned presenter says, “You must never….” or “You can’t…” do this or that, only to have me later come across a bestseller doing just what was proscribed. I have wondered more than once how many budding writers have been stymied by fear of breaking the rules. Warnings, like “You will never be published if you…” are terrifying to writers who know how staggering the odds are against them ever being published.
So I cheered when Foley, who has worked as an editor and published several other books, defied the advice to mystery writers not to have too many point of view characters. I’ve been told four point of view characters are max, and that’s pushing it. Foley pulled off seven, the last being an omniscient point of view character called The Wedding Night. Each chapter has a heading alerting the reader who will be telling that part of the story and what the character’s role is (“Olivia, The Bridesmaid”), with the exception of those titled The Wedding Night. In those, an invisible storyteller hoovers above and reveals events.
Six of the seven point of view characters are written in the first person. The Wedding Night is written in third person omniscient. One point of view character is limited to three chapters toward the end of the book. The others are more evenly sprinkled throughout the book.
The entire book is written in the present tense, which has grown in favor in recent years because it can give a sense of immediacy and create the sensation that the events in the novel are happening in real time. I’m normally not a fan of present tense, but have to admit it does exactly that in The Guest List.
Foley also shifts from past to present and back again, which could cause confusion for the reader. By adding a notation, “Earlier” or “Now,” that problem is alleviated, if not solved. I did occasionally find myself flipping back to earlier pages.
I won’t share specifics, but I will say there isn’t a body on page one. Again, the advice to writers about when they must deliver a dead body is inconsistent and endless. Foley had created so much suspense about the characters’ history with one another, I barely noticed when somebody was finally “done in.” She coupled intrigue with the impending threat of a coastal storm, which managed to assume the importance of an independent character. I think the rule-makers will forgive her for featuring the weather in her opening chapter, another no-no for writers.
So here’s to you, Lucy Foley. Bravo for pulling it all off, showing that rules are indeed made to be broken, especially for writers, and inspiring the rebel in us all. It’s no surprise The Guest List has been on the NY Times Bestsellers list for a number of weeks and is a July selection for Reese’s Book Club.
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