Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book is an ambitious multi-generational family saga that looks at American life through the experience of three generations of one patrician family, the Milton family of Crockett’s Island. The island is off the coast of Maine and was purchased in the 30s after Ogden and Kitty Milton lost their eldest son in an accident–a sort of fresh start, a place to heal and rebuild. That they could buy an island in the midst of the Great Depression gives you an idea of their power and privilege.
The second generations story is told over the spring and summer of 1959. Moss, the son, is supposed to go into the firm but who wants to be a songwriter. Not just that, he wants to write the music of a new, free, and liberated America. Joan, the middle one is falling in love, but all her life she has been told she cannot have children because she is epileptic and should not pass that on. Evelyn, the youngest is engaged to the boy next island and could not be happier. The third generation’s story is told in the summer of 2018. Joan’s daughter Evie and Evelyn’s four children have inherited the island, but the wealth is gone, the trust is running dry, and they need to decide what to do with the island. It is ironic that Evie is a historian, too, given how little she knows about her own family and how resistant she is to questions her husband raises about them.
Four other people come to the island at pivotal moments. There are Elsa and her son Willy, the daughter of Ogden’s investment partner in Germany, in German steel. She’s married to a Jewish man who has already been arrested. She asks Kitty to take Willy, to protect him. Kitty’s decision will haunt the family through the generations. The other two are Len Levy and Reginald Pauling. Len Levy is a Jewish man who works for the firm and who falls for Joan. Reginald Pauling is his friend and also a friend of Moss, who invited them and who is, possibly in love with him. Their 1959 visit will change everything.
The Guest Book is beautifully written with a sense of place painted in fresh and original prose. Place has tremendous power and the contrast between Manhattan and Crockett’s Island is critical to the story. Character is also important and the main characters are complex and vivid people who can surprise the reader. The true magic of the book, though, is how these simple encounters expose the festering poisons that have infected our nation from its beginning.
The Miltons are polite people, raised to be kind, to never make anyone uncomfortable, but also with a privileged sense of how the world is supposed to be. They are aware of their privilege, but with good manners, they will never flaunt it. They believe, for example, that Black people should have equal rights, but must they be so loud about it. Ogden, Kitty, Joan, Moss, and Evie face moral crises where privilege meets prejudice. There is generational change, but will it ever be enough? From one perspective, it is easy to see each failure on their part as simple prejudice, but from another, it is more complex. To give one example from early in the book, is Kitty’s moral failure the result of prejudice or grief or a mix of both? It looks different from either side of the question and Blake makes us recognize how we may tell ourselves stories to assuage our guilt.
It is likely that The Guest Book will be the best book I read this year. It is rare to find a book with such beautiful language and such complicated and powerful characters in a story that has so much significance. Blake explores the weight of history and family and how polite silence can hide monstrous acts. I could not stop reading even though I did not want the book to end. What more can you ask for?
The Guest Book will be released May 7th. I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.