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Emma Cline's Top Books About Social Strivers

Posted on 31st May 2024 by Mark Skinner

A sinuous summer thriller of deceit and revenge perfect for the beach, The Guest is the second scorching novel from the author of the bestselling The Girls. Tracking the devastation caused by a young woman rejected by the Long Island glitterati, the novel deftly dissects the dangers inherent in an outsider trying to force their way into the inner sanctum of a social group. In this exclusive piece, Emma Cline picks four more works of fiction that play on the theme of the dark side of social striving.        

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

I love to follow the chaos of a narrator that operates outside the bounds of our moral code, though Highsmith’s Ripley keeps all that amoral chaos tightly-controlled. The contrast between the polished surfaces and the machinations of murder and desire makes it one of my favorite books.

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Tom Ripley, charming yet petulant, reckless yet calculating, is one of the great literary anti-heroes, and his shocking actions across the jet-set Europe of the 1950s have thrilled and appalled millions of voracious readers.
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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Lily Bart is a tremendous character, and this book is her relentless, fascinating spiral downwards. She’s undone by her own desires, or rather, her desires as mediated by her limited social world and possibilities, and it’s all suffused with such masterful tension, so that each turn of her fate is totally consuming and heartbreaking. 

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Set in the duplicitous world of the New York nouveau riche, Wharton's proto-feminist black comedy of manners follows the beautiful Lily Bart whose attempts to gain independence in the world of frivolity and convention end up costing her more than she ever fathomed.
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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The classic is always fresher, when I return to it, than it is in my memory–it’s totally modern, as well as much weirder than I remember. It’s a great lesson in choosing narrative point of view: Jay Gatsby is a character consumed by obsession– it could be overwhelming to encounter this straight-on, so we get Nick Carraway, who acts as a prism so the story can be more fully experienced.

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One of the undisputed jewels of American fiction, Fitzgerald’s dazzling critique of the superficiality of the Jazz Age captures the glamorous facade at the heart of the American Dream in devastating style.
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Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegasar

Janet Malcolm wrote a great essay on the sharp, devilish delights of this insane series following high school students in Manhattan–the privileged and the slightly less privileged outsiders who orbit around each other. It’s high satire and totally bananas and delightful, and probably shouldn’t be read by the actual teenagers who are its supposed audience.

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A delicious deep dive into the lives of privileged teenagers on the Upper East side, Von Ziegesar's mega-selling page-turner is a delicious blend of satire and pure voyeurism into the gilded world of the incredibly wealthy.
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