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The Guest List

By Lucy Foley

Book review and synopsis for The Guest List by Lucy Foley, a slow-burning mystery-thriller set on an island off the coast of West Ireland.


In The Guest List, on a small island off the coast of West Ireland, guests have gathered for the wedding. The bride and groom are online magazine publisher Julia “Jules” Keegan and celebrity host and survivalist William Slater. They've gathered their relatives and loved ones to celebrate in true destination wedding style, with plenty of champagne and fashionable people.

But as a storm brews, the guests and their shared histories collide with one another, and when the lights go out, a body is found. Between William's old boarding school friends and Jules's close friends and relatives, there's plenty of secrets and intrigue to around. As old secrets get revealed, the question that remains is, who did it and why?

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Section-by-Section Summary
See the Section-by-Section Summary of The Guest List
Quick Plot Summary

On an island off the coast of West Ireland, Julia "Jules" Keegan and Will Slater are having a wedding at a place called the Folly. Jules runs a successful online magazine while Will is the host of a survivalist TV show. The night of the wedding, there's a storm, and the lights cut out. When they turn on, there's a scream and reports of a body.

(The book cuts back and forth from the present and the events leading up to the present until the two timelines converge at the very end.)

The day before, people arrive on the island. The Folly is owned by Aoife (wedding planner) and her husband Freddy. On the bride's side, Charlie is Jules's best friend. Hannah is Charlie's wife. (Charlie and Jules are very close, but Charlie and Will don't like each other.) Olivia is Julia's younger (19) half-sister. On Will's side, Johnno is the best man, and the four ushers are four guys they went to boarding school with, Femi, Angus, Duncan and Peter. Three weeks ago, Jules found an anonymous note telling her not to marry Will.

Jules is frustrated about Olivia's unenthusiastic attitude about the wedding. Olivia confides in Hannah that she's sad about a recent breakup with her ex-boyfriend Callum. Afterwards, she started dating an older guy ("Steven") she met off an app. She took him to one of her sister's fancy parties to impress him, but instead got drunk and made a fool out of herself, so he ghosted her. There's more, but Olivia doesn't continue.

At dinner, there's talk of something that happened during the "stag" (bachelor party) to Charlie, but the guys won't say what. They also reminisce about Survival, a game they used to play in school where older guys would kidnap one of the younger guys and leave him in the woods to fend for himself for the night. (One kid died from it, though.) It's the game Will's show was based on. It was actually Johnno's idea and Johnno was given a screen test for them to host as a duo, but the producers preferred the good-looking and perfect Will as a solo act. Johnno is kind of a mess compared to the over guys (less successful, not from a wealthy family, etc.), and Jules doesn't understand why Will is friends with him.

That morning of the wedding, a storm is brewing and the other guests arrive. The wedding goes as planned. Afterwards, Johnno talks to Will's father, who was headmaster at their school. Johnno finds out that he thinks Johnno stole the GSCE papers (UK standardized test) that Will used to cheat on the exam. (Actually, Will stole them.) Next, Johnno strikes up a conversation with Piers, Will's producers. (Will hadn't included Piers on the guest list but Jules had assumed he'd want him there.) Piers reveals that they had wanted both of them for the show, but Will told them Johnno wasn't interested. Before Will can interrupt, there's a commotion because Olivia has gone into the water and is drowning. Will saves her.

Afterwards, Hannah talks with Olivia. (Olivia was upset because the truth was that she'd actually gotten pregnant by Steven and had an abortion, but she's too ashamed to tell.) Hannah encourages Olivia to get whatever it is off her chest. Hannah talks about her sister, Alice, who had an ex-boyfriend that passed around an explicit video of her after she dumped him. Alice was too ashamed to tell them, but Hannah wishes she would have, since she loved her regardless. (Hannah leaves out that Alice killed herself 17 years ago.)

During the wedding speeches, Jules's dad makes the first speech. Jules thinks about how her father stopped giving her money after he married his new wife, which is why she chose this location. Jules had asked for venue proposals (through her online mag) and Aoife's pitch came with a huge discount.

Then, Will talks about how he met Jules (he went back to a party after his original date needed to leave). We (the readers) now discover that Will and "Steven" are the same person. Olivia had gone on the apps using a fake name, "Bella". Will had apparently done the same, as "Steven". Olivia brought him to her sister's party, got trashed and needed to leave. Will went back and met Jules (not knowing they were related). After Jules and Will were engaged (and after Olivia had her abortion), Jules introduced him to her family. Olivia and Will were both surprised, but neither said anything. Olivia's also the one who wrote the anonymous note to Jules.

During Johnno's speech, he gets the ushers to play a quick Survival game with Will. They blindfold, tie him up and take him out to a cave. After the others leave, Johnno turns back and confronts Will about the show. Then, Johnno brings up the kid (nicknamed Loner) who died in school. Loner idolized Will, but had found the (very incriminating) GSCE papers that Will stole. That night, Will and Johnno kidnapped him and tied him up near the beach. The tide rose, and he died. Johnno demands to know if his death was really an accident -- did Will know the tide would rise? They are interrupted by Aoife (who we later find out overheard the conversation).

Meanwhile, Hannah learns that Charlie and Jules had sex once after Hannah had given birth to their first child. Enraged, she goes off to hang with other guys, who turn out to be two men Will knows from University. They bring up a girl who once broke Will's heart and how he got back at her by sending around an explicit video. Hannah realizes that the girl is Alice, and Will is the reason Alice killed herself. (We also find out that the stag party incident was that Charlie was ditched naked, alone and freezing on an island for a few hours and he blames Will.)

When Will returns, Olivia tells him that she needs to tell Jules the truth. Will threatens to send out nude photos of her if she does. They're interrupted by Jules (who we soon find out has overheard that conversation), telling Will to come cut the cake.

(Flashing forward to the present, we now find out that the dead body in question is Will's. The four ushers went to look for it, and see his bloody body. Johnno walks up to them with a knife. )

After the cake cutting, the lights go out. At this point, Johnno, Oliva, Hannah and Jules are all furious with Will, but it's Aoife that confronts Will. She tells him she's Loner's (real name Darcey) sister. Freddy was Darcey's roommate back in his school days, and he had heard them come kidnap Darcey before he died. Aoife offered Jules a huge discount to have her wedding here in order to lure Will here to talk to him, but now she knows the truth. Aoife believes her parents died from the grief of Darcey's death. Aoife stabs Will with the knife.

The guys all believe Johnno was the one who stabbed Will, but Johnno actually only found the body and pulled out the knife. The police apprehend Johnno. Johnno believes he will likely go to prison for this. Olivia and Jules reconcile. Hannah and Charlie leave together, but things are different now, and Hannah wishes she could have been the one to stab Will.

For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.

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Book Review

The Guest List by Lucy Foley was released in February 2020, but was chosen as one of Reese’s Book Club Picks for June 2020 (there were two this month).

It’s been a while since I’ve read a straight-up mystery-thriller, and I’m trying to switch back and forth when it comes to reading serious books vs more entertaining books. When I started seeing this one around everywhere, it seemed as good a reason as any to check it out.

Author Lucy Foley

Author Lucy Foley

The book starts off by assembling a colorful cast of characters in a unique and atmospheric venue. A wedding is such a great setting for a murder mystery, with all the fancy clothes, plenty of booze and so many people being forced to mingle. It equates to pretty much the perfect setup for a little mayhem.

The Guest List is a semi-closed room mystery. Which is to say that, there’s a set amount of characters and they are all (more or less) in one place when the murder occurs. So, it’s set on a small private island, and all the people on the island are staying at this property. There’s a limited number of people who could have done it, and you’re trying to figure out who it could be.

Foley does a great job of giving all the characters enough backstory so it leaves it up for grabs as to where your attention should be focused, and more importantly who could be the killer. I read some reviews where people had found the multiple points of view confusing, but I didn’t think it was hard to follow. Instead, I think the multiple points of view add a lot to the story and worked well. Perhaps your mileage will differ.

It should be noted that this story takes a while — like, a looong while — to really get underway. You know from page one that something has happened (a loud scream and soon, a body!), but for a long stretch through the book, there’s mostly just insinuations, stuff that seems ominous but are just pranks and people hinting at secrets. By the halfway point, I was pretty ready to throw in the towel if there wasn’t a real plot development very soon. I’m also very much not a fan of fakeouts (he’s holding something in his hand! oh, it’s just a flashlight — that type of thing) and there are quite a few in this book, especially in the earlier sections.

At the sixty percent mark, I was officially out of patience. (In my mind, I had started writing an absolutely scathing review.) I was also reading an e-book, so I was acutely aware of my progress. But then, finally, thankfully, stuff started to happen.

Once the plot was actually moving forward, I very quickly got back on board. Stuff comes together in a way that fits together surprisingly well and it draws in a lot of small details that appear earlier in the book, which I loved. The atmosphere of the storm raging and howling all around them as the book nears its finale and brings all its narrative threads together is gratifying and fun. And I was pleased that all the characters basically behave in ways that make sense and is consistent with how humans behave (which often can’t be said of some thrillers).

I do wish the mystery aspects weren’t so back-loaded though. It’s not that the the beginning is boring (it’s not), it’s that I like trying to guess what the ending is or what’s going to happen next, but when the plot has made almost no progression, there’s really nothing to go on. By the time there’s enough information to start guessing, it’s already too late since everything starts unraveling at a really fast pace.

Reese's Book Club Pick for June 2020

Reese’s Book Club Pick for June 2020

Read it or Skip it?

The Guest List has a slow buildup that results in a pretty solid mystery, but the pacing of it is unfortunate. It starts too slow and then everything gets revealed quite quickly. Still, I really liked the atmosphere of it, the multiple coherent storylines running through it, and the many small details that end up resurfacing.

The New York Times Book Review described this as “evoking the great Agatha Christie classics,” and as much as I did enjoy parts of this — sorry, but no. You should probably lower your expectations. But it is a thriller that does a good job of coming together in the end, even if there are a few-too-many fake-outs, some cheesy lines and a first half that may test your patience. PornHub also gets multiple shoutouts in this book, so you can draw whatever conclusions you’d like from that.

This is definitely one just for mystery-thriller fans. (I also wouldn’t recommend buying it for any young readers as it does have more “adult” aspects of it’s plot.) I read it over one weekend and for whatever flaws it has, I did enjoy the mystery. There’s enough cleverness in there that you’ll likely feel it was worth the time.

See The Guest List on Amazon.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of The Guest List

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