"A novel about past mistakes and betrayals that ripple throughout generations, The Guest Book examines not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America. It is a literary triumph. The Guest Book follows three generations of a powerful American family, a family that "used to run the world." And when the novel begins in 1935, they still do. Kitty and Ogden Milton appear to have everything--perfect children, good looks, a love everyone envies. But after a tragedy befalls them, Ogden tries to bring Kitty back to life by purchasing an island in Maine. That island, and its house, come to define and burnish the Milton family, year after year after year. And it is there that Kitty issues a refusal that will haunt her till the day she dies. In 1959 a young Jewish man, Len Levy, will get a job in Ogden's bank and earn the admiration of Ogden and one of his daughters, but the scorn of everyone else. Len's best friend, Reg Pauling, has always been the only black man in the room--at Harvard, at work, and finally at the Miltons' island in Maine. An island that, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, this last generation doesn't have the money to keep. When Kitty's granddaughter hears that she and her cousins might be forced to sell it, and when her husband brings back disturbing evidence about her grandfather's past, she realizes she is on the verge of finally understanding the silences that seemed to hover just below the surface of her family all her life. An ambitious novel that weaves the American past with its present, Sarah Blake's The Guest Book looks at the racism and power that has been systemically embedded in the U.S. for generations" --
It is about the culpability of silence and the family secrets of the Milton family, how wealth and privilege control the gates of power, and the acceptance of prejudice, racism, and anti-Semitism.
The first chapter is set in 1935 when young wife Kitty is filled with the joy of spring and ends with a horrible tragedy. I was hooked and compelled to read on.
The Guest Book recalled to mind E. M. Forster's Howard's End, one of my favorite novels. Forster's novel set in Edwardian England considers class and inheritance. Blake's novel considers prejudice and inheritance. Some characters can not give up their protected status of privilege and some rankle against it, hoping for a more just and equitable system.
In 1939, at the height of the Depression, Ogden Milton purchased an island retreat in Maine. Ogden hopes to begin anew with his wife Kitty after a tragic accident shattered their world. The island becomes part of their lives, representing all that is good and beautiful. It also holds them to the past, a place that resists change, from the upholstery and wallpaper to the ghosts that haunt it.
Milton's banking concern survived the Depression and continued to thrive during the war--partly because of German investments in steel which lead to business with the Nazis. When the steel magnate's daughter, who married a Jewish musician, asks Kitty to keep her child, Kitty turns her down. They return to Germany and are never heard of again. It is a guilty secret she keeps for decades.
Kitty and Ogden have daughters Joan and Evie and son Moss.
Evie behaves correctly, going to college and marrying the 'right kind' of man.
Joan has epilepsy and believes she will never marry. Then she meets Len Levy, a self-made man hired by her father's bank. He is a man of vision but his idea of opening the stock market to the middle and working class is rejected. Len is Jewish and people like the Miltons stick to their own kind. They keep their affair secret.
Moss is to inherit his father's position but chaffs under the expectations and prejudices of their aristocratic social class. He dreams of writing music for a new America and the changes he hears humming just out of reach.
On a fatal night in 1959, the family gathered on the island for Evie's wedding, when two outsiders arrive at Moss's invitation. Len Levy and his Chicago childhood friend, Reg Pauling, an African American writer. Although they went to Harvard with Moss, these men know there are walls and gates that shut them out. In spite of Moss's vision of a new American of inclusivity and the tearing down of walls--in spite of the passionate love between Len and Joan--they understand they are outsiders. The Miltons can be benevolent but never open.
What happens on that fateful day is kept secret. It is only known as the day Moss died.
After the passing of their grandparents and parents, Joan and Evie's children and their cousins must decide what to do with the Milton island home. Joan's daughter Evie can't bear to let go of the place, vivid memories mooring her to the island. But the family has run out of inherited money and the grandchildren have chosen idealistic careers that don't come with a large income. Evie's husband Paul, who is Jewish, can't understand her need to hang on to the island.
Evie is tormented by questions. Why did her mother Joan ask that her ashes be scattered on the rocky beach on the island? What was the story behind the photograph of their grandfather Ogden with a Nazi? How did Uncle Moss die? Why did Kitty want the stranger Reg Pauling to get Moss's inheritance? Clues impel Evie to detangle the past until the family secrets that are finally revealed.
In Howard's End, Forster asks who is to inherit Britain. In The Guest Book, the question of who is to inherit the island is at stake. But the island becomes a symbol of the monied, white elite's world of privilege.
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
An Epic multi-generational family saga exposing long buried secrets and truths- not only providing a mirrored reflection of the privileged Milton’s, but of the entire country as well…
“There is the crime and there is silence”
In the mid-thirties, golden couple Ogden and Kitty Milton, recovering from a horrific tragedy, purchase Crockett Island, making it a point of renewal. They will ‘summer’ there every year of their lives, thereafter, as do their children, and their grandchildren. But now the money has run out and the house is in ill repair, leaving the painful decision about the island’s future to rest in the hands of the only surviving family members- a trio of cousins, who each have their own agenda.
“Nothing will ever change. Sunlight. Starlight. Drinks on the dock. A single sail out in the bay. It will never change. It seems to promise. ‘You will not die’ On and on. Like a painting. Here you are. As long as the Island stands, we stand. Time never minds”
Evie is fighting hard to keep the island, while her cousins are open to selling it, and her husband, Paul, constantly reminds her of their financial situation.
But is Evie holding on to the island, or to her mother’s memory?
Evie can easily laugh at her family's 'WASP culture' history, yet she becomes irritated if anyone else passes judgements on them. And- Despite evidence to the contrary, Evie stubbornly turns a blind eye to the dark secrets hidden in her family’s past.
As Blake takes us back across time, a heart wrenching story unfolds, revealing an ugly, sad, guilt ridden underbelly to the affluent Milton family, one deeply rooted in entitlement, prejudice and racism. Yet, future generations attempt to provoke a new value system, one which requires a conscience, insists on a shift in attitude, and demands change. The contrasts between entitlement, power and control, against idealism, and then juxtaposed against certain harsh truths, stirs up a tragic fire storm, which left this reader with a fire in my belly, on the edge of my seat, and with an ache in my heart, not only for the characters, but for -Us
“History is sometimes made by heroes, but it is also always
made by us. We, the people, who stumble around, who block or help the hero out of loyalty,
stubbornness, faith, or fear. Those who wall up—and those who break through walls. The
people at the edge of the photographs. The people watching—the crowd. You.”
Sarah Blake’s writing is beautiful. Her prose is elegant, powerful, poignant, and almost hypnotic. The characterizations and dialogue are so incredibly vivid and devastatingly realistic. The trappings of wealth, the narrow- mindedness of class distinctions, the half- lived lives, the progression and changes of the times unfolding through the years, stripping away decades of racism and prejudice is mesmerizing.
Yet, for Evie, as the blanks are finally filled in, there is a revealing defensiveness, a conspiratorial, protective silence, and a stubborn refusal to accept the reality of her family’s history, one which is too painful to acknowledge.
Although the story leaves us with a hint of hope, it is a shy, tentative first step. Mirrors don’t lie- looking into one, seeing the dark corners of our nation’s past, and our own personal histories exposed, is neither easy, nor kind.
However, it is an opportunity to break the chain, learn from the past, work diligently to prevent history from repeating itself. It is a lesson we can all learn from. Stay on the forward path, ever alert, never silent, or willfully ignorant. That is the key to releasing the past, where healing begins, where forgiveness takes root, and hope’s seed is planted.
This is an outstanding family saga, so well-written and packed with tautness and poignancy. I was absolutely riveted to the pages of this rich, compelling novel from start to finish. If you can only fit in one book in this summer- make it this one!
But THE GUEST BOOK deserves every word you have heard about it. It is as if the two books were written by different people.
Mostly, THE GUEST BOOK is about secrets. Three generations of a well-to-do family are described, including the secrets kept by the first two and the eventual unraveling by the third.
This story is sad. To me, that is partly because the secrets are not only about wrongs committed but also about the shame that accompanies them. Also, what appears to be racial prejudice is sometimes something else.
Even though I am delighted with THE GUEST BOOK , some of it does irritate me:
a) This would be more reader friendly if chapter headings are years rather than consecutive numbers.
b) Stories of different family members depend on a few too many coincidences.
c) Perhaps this is just my misunderstanding, but it seems silly that Americans, even though they are New Yorkers, use English affectations, e.g., “mum” and “pram.”
But overlook these. Most people can.
I won an ARC of THE GUEST BOOK from the publisher, Flatiron Books.
This book is choppy. It goes back and forward in time much too often, with too little in each time before it jumps forward/back. Perhaps it would have been smoother is I read it in print rather than listening to it, but I spent way too much time trying to figure out “which Evelyn is it this time?” Some of the book leads up to WWII, and all of a sudden it is the 1950s.
There were secrets, but no real mystery, and too much foreshadowing for me to be surprised by anything that happened.
I imagine that Sarah Blake fans will enjoy this, but I didn't. I kept listening because I thought maybe something surprising, something interesting would happen, but it never did.
I had read many reviews of this book before I began to read it, so I started out with great expectations for this novel. I also had read sample chapters in Book Buzz, and was intrigued by the beginning of this book.
However, I quickly became confused by the movement of the action back and forth between generations and characters. I found the book to be wordy and got bogged down part way through. I skimmed the rest of the book, but still felt confused at the end, as if I was missing something somewhere. I really wanted to like this book, but found it did not live up to expectations.
I received the book from the publisher and from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.
The novel begins in 1935 with Ogden and Kitty Milton and their three children. They are living a very privileged life and when a tragedy happens in the family, Ogden buys an island and a grand house in Maine to help the family become whole again. The family spends their summers on the island, entertaining all of their rich friends whose lives are reflections of their own. This all begins to break down in the next generation when the 3 Milton children grow up and realize that they want different things out of life and their values are different than their parents. Moss doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps in business but wants to write music, much to his parent's dismay. One daughter marries the man who is just like her dad but the other daughter falls in love with a Jewish man which was totally not done in their upper class lives. By the next generation, the money has run out and the grandchildren have to decide if they afford to keep the island and all of their memories. Will this decision also help uncover some of the secrets from the previous two generations that have affected their lives so much?
This book is a well written look at past mistakes and betrayals that ripple throughout generations., It examines not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America.
Thanks to BookBrowse for a copy of this book to read and review. All opinions are my own.
This is a lengthy book which attempts to tackle some very serious historic societal problems. Using a healthy number of characters and a time line that travels back and forth over several decades, the author highlights the way people lived and treated each other, beginning in the late 1920’s, as it follows three generations of a family that lives through the Great Depression, the Holocaust and more.
The Miltons were a wealthy WASP family in the investment business. After suffering the tragic loss of a child, Ogden Milton decided to purchase an island to help his wife move on emotionally, and to use as a family retreat, so as to leave their mark on the world, to make them part of history, to mark them as “facts” as a family that had lived and prospered on this earth. He and his wife Kitty, envisioned family outings there. It was a place that would give them their identity and earn them the respect of others in their class which would follow the family for generations to come. Crockett’s Island would be known as the Milton’s Island. Kitty saw a future with her family continuing to enjoy its place in society, in the hierarchy of those brought up properly, with manners and rules of behavior, those who believed they were a cut above most people and deserved the right to exist in their rarefied atmosphere, untouched by the hoi polloi. She saw a family that was content and thriving with dignity.
Friends and family of their same social strata were welcomed to the island and yearly rituals and celebrations were observed. Those in the upper echelon of society prided themselves on being “good” and respectful to all, never overtly insulting anyone, but also never allowing anyone of a different class, color or background into their inner circle. They tolerated others, but they did not embrace them. Although the characters were diverse in color, religion, class, health, aspirations, and hints at, perhaps, sexual preference, they each knew their place in life and some struggled in the uphill battle against the tide of the acceptable norms of the day. Each had a different and unique view of the world which they pursued. Some were more forgiving and some were more judgmental, some had more freedom of choice and some were constricted by family expectations. Some were bitter and some were Pollyannaish.
Anti-Semitism and racism were a particular focus in the novel, as well as the way certain illnesses were viewed by an unsophisticated public and medical establishment. White privilege and the class divide were front and center. Those who wished to remove some societal constraints were not fully able to make the changes necessary or even to embrace them wholly. In some ways, each character was molded into a shape and form that could be altered, but not redeemed. Many mistakes were made. There were misunderstanding and many secrets that were kept which reverberated down the generations for decades to influence the lives of the descendants. Change, if any, was slow in coming.
Moss Milton marched to the beat of another drummer, but was not permitted to really pursue his dream of being a musician. He was expected to step into his father’s shoes and continue the financial dynasty. Len Levy, a Jew, was not truly welcomed by Kitty Milton into her world, although he worked for Ogden Milton and was well respected by him. Reg Pauling was black and was a good friend of Moss. Both Len and Reg had chips on their shoulders, perhaps justified, about the way they were treated by the world. Moss, Len and Reg, an unusual combination, were good friends, although the three lived in and hailed from vastly different worlds. Would their friendship survive?
Evelyn and Joan Milton were sisters. Evelyn was very protective of her sister who suffered from occasional seizures which, although under controll, could occur without notice. Joan was ashamed of her affliction and vowed not to marry so as not to pass on the Epilepsy to any progeny. She considered it unfair to marry since it was her obligation to produce children for her husband who had the right to expect heirs.
Although, in business, Ogden Milton respected effort and capability and did not fault anyone based on their religion or color, he did not expect to have to fraternize with them. He preferred those of his own ilk. While he was more open to embracing people of different backgrounds at work, and he even entertained them on the island retreat, it was where his idea of being inclusive and accepting all, ended. In his business dealings, he didn’t even mind dealing with the Germans during the Holocaust. Ogden simply believed that one did what one had to do, and he did what was expedient for his business to thrive, without questioning the rightness or wrongness of his transactions. In its way, Ogden’s own class also believed in racial superiority.
Both Ogden and Kitty belonged to a higher echelon that chose to ignore the things that were upsetting, the things that they could not control, preferring to keep their lives uncluttered with problems that they couldn’t fix. They wished to try to be content with their lives, at all times. They had the power of their money and their stellar reputations to enhance their efforts. Things that were upsetting were simply swept under the rug, ignored and not discussed.
Len Levy and Joan Milton fell in love, but it was a forbidden match, and as it plays out throughout the book, it illustrates the differences in the way people thought about and treated each other, in the way they accepted each other’s values. To Joan, although she loved Len, he was larger, louder (the stereotype and anti-Semitic trope about a Jew), than those White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who simply just knew how to behave. It was very difficult to envision his being accepted or finding a place in her world. Her brother’s relationship with Reg exposed the racial and civil rights issues of the day. Reg was often refused entry to places, and he sometimes felt that he was invited to make the person inviting him feel righteous.
Eventually, as time passed, Joan and Evelyn married and had families of their own that married and had children. Following the deaths of Ogden and Kitty, the island passed to them, but as decades passed, the heirs began to run out of money to keep and maintain the island. Some had moved on, recognizing that the way of life on Crockett’s Island was passé and over the top. Some, like Evie Schlesinger, clung to their need to feel that it was something of great value as it represented who they were, the Miltons of Crockett Island, that it marked the very fact of their existence.
There are so many secrets that pop up intermittently, that I found that their revelations often seemed unclear for both the reader and the characters in the way that they were played out. Sometimes, because past and present intermingled, it seemed not only confusing, but perhaps a bit tedious. Also, at times, rather than feeling authentic, it felt contrived, as if the author really just wanted to present a book to illustrate the progressive social issues of race, religion and class that have and continue to divide our country. Elitism and white privilege are front and center as the author presents the shallowness of business on a Wall Street preoccupied with greed. The horrors of racism and anti-Semitism were highlighted, and they seemed to be planted into the pages of the novel for that purpose alone.
The author presented a story that illustrated the fact that although we might have the best of intentions, the results sometimes go awry because they are not fully or meaningfully executed. True change has not yet occurred and some, especially those who would truly benefit from the changes which would advance society, have lost hope that the vision of a more idealistic world would ever be realized. Does true love stands the test of time, although it is unrequited? Are we a class conscious, racist and anti-Semitic country that has still not become more inclusive and moved into the future? Are we stuck in the past, obsessed with our elitist views? Was the book about overcoming adversity or about a world that was at its heart a good place, a world that would overcome the evils of the past so that all could prosper in the future? Was the book about claiming a place in history?
Some interesting facts in the book came to light, like the story about the stumble stones for the Jews of Berlin, Germany. A stumble stone marked a person’s place, to prove that they existed. Many of the characters also wanted to leave their mark, to have the world know that they had been there, so that they didn’t simply live, then die, as if they never had been there at all. There were examples of barriers being broken down by succeeding generations with interfaith relationships and marriages, with views about unnecessary, excessive materialism. There were examples of the redemption of those who had lived well, but not as kindly as they should have lived. There were interesting examples of racism which showed how Reg dealt with the hate and exclusion he had to deal with and which should be a lesson to all readers. Would his wounds ever heal?
This is a good read, but it could have used further editing to make the flow of the narrative a bit smoother. It holds the reader’s interest as we are given a window into the lives of the upper crust that lived in all of their glory, through the ups and downs of society, never discussing or allowing troublesome issues to bother them, but rather just moving on in the exalted air of their world.
Quotes: "It was a life lived in the slipped track, as though the right reel of film had never caught on the teeth of the projector."
"There are no blacks in Hawthorne because he'd have to see them as real enough, human enough, for him to imagine them, put them in the story."
"The fog had completely vanished and the day pulled off its hat."
This is a sprawling saga of a patrician family dynasty. The book tries to capture how family secrets, biases, mistakes and tragedies unspool across generations through the lens of this singular family and those who come into its orbit.
It opens with the family patriarch buying a private island off the coast of Maine for the family to heal and regroup from the tragic death of a child. The writing is good with, I presume, well-drawn characters who embody extremely moneyed, privileged and connected types. Either you'll find them and their story relatable and intriguing or you won't, which at least in part may explain the polarizing reactions to the book.
I strongly suspect The Guest Book is very much in keeping with Blake's body of work, although I've not read any of her other books. If you're a fan of those/her, you may like this too.
It wasn't for me. Some reactions and thoughts:
- The family harbors a sense of entitlement and classism, as well as racism towards Jews and blacks that arises from a deep aversion to any political or cultural changes that might threaten their position within society. The book reports this neutrally, almost to the point of banality and causalness, as if it was expected and normal for the time and/or wealthy and connected families. That may be true, but it's unsatisfying. The lack of a moral POV, though a fair choice for the author to have made, directly contributed to my growing disinterest. Some things happened, but not enough.
- It's hard to follow both who is whom and where the story is in point and time. There isn't a year associated with chapters or a family tree to help you navigate. You're on your own to sort it all out, but I wasn't invested to the point that I was willing to expend the effort.
- Overall, I was wholly ambivalent to the characters, neither rooting for them, nor against them.
I bailed because I lacked any sense that personal growth or payoff - emotional or otherwise - would be forthcoming from investing in the story of this family.
"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different."
This book does shed light onto this world of the super rich who frolic in an alternate world from most of us. It doesn't mean they don't have feelings, love, suffer loss, etc. but they do act entitled because they always have lived that way. Fitzgerald does a better job of telling that story.
Didn't seem to live up to the hype, overall.
This World War II/Family Life/Literary fiction story spans over three generations of a once privileged family – the Milton family; told in four (4) parts over 45 chapters and nearly 500 pages.
The story spans from about 1935-2019 (last entry was in the Guest Book in 1959, and it’s been 60 years since then). Once so rich the family owned an island, but in today’s time, the descendants can no longer afford to keep it, and some don’t want to let it go. Evie, one of the grandchildren, wants more – she is looking for something, but what she finds isn’t necessarily what she is seeking.
Evie soon learns a terrible truth about her grandparents, particularly her grandfather and his involvement in Germany.
Although not always equal in the point of views – the story goes from the past to present without letting the reader know where/when they are in the story (with dates under the chapter, i.e.: August 1959, Present Day, June 1936, etc). Thus, the reader could read two (2) – three (3) parts in the past and only one in present day and feel slightly confused as to where in the time/place of the story they’re in.
Part I (page 1-119) of the book alternates between Kitty and Ogden Milton in the 1930’s and present-day with Evie, Kitty’s granddaughter who is trying to come to terms with her late mother’s passing, her family’s truth, and the disposition of the island.
The story starts in 1935 with Kitty and Ogden Milton – just before World War II. Their youngest son dies in a horrible accident, which continues to haunt Kitty throughout her life and is the catalyst for a decision she is forced to make. Milton purchases an island for Kitty. His hope is to bring her back as he sees her as slipping away from him. The couple is content to ignore what is going on around them as it doesn’t affect them. Kitty is then asked to do someone a favor, but refuses, a refusal that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
The first part ends before the US enters World War II and thus the reader is left to wonder – how did the Milton family react to something they thought wouldn’t happen?
Part II (page 123-268) starts with the grown Milton kids (Moss [Ogden Jr.], Joan, Evelyn) in the summer of 1959 – and builds from there what will soon happen in Part III, the heart of the story – which surprisingly is only 2-3 months in length. Again, some of the chapters unevenly alternate with Evie’s story. Kitty eventually learns the fate of the child she was asked to save.
Part III (272-458) continues from 1959, where part II left off with the alternating view points.
It is here that contains the heart of the novel, which for some, might be too long – it takes the writer nearly 200 pages to get to the “climax” of the story. The truths about the Milton family and their own prejudices about people – and two new characters will make their mark on the Milton family. The reader also learns how deep prejudice runs in the privileged family, so much so that another tragedy unfolds.
Since it is 1959, there are a lot of controversial social topics covered – however I don’t know that they were discussed as much or in that way at the time.
Part IV (461-482) stays in the present day and serves as an end to the saga. The reader is left not knowing what happens to the island, but learns who Evie really is.
The book takes the reader through a journey as well – what do we remember and keep with us, what do we discard, what kind of changes can we make in our lives, how accurate is our history.
It is, on the surface, a stunningly poignant and challenging read. As noted, there are sections that can be quite lengthy to read – part III is the longest as it builds to the heart.
Part IV is a bit of a letdown – it rapidly slides to the end in three short chapters barely 25 pages in length. Perhaps because there was so much in building the story between parts II and III, that part IV wraps it up the best way it can.
But, the writer has a pleasant surprise regarding Evie and we learn who is really is. That would’ve been an interesting part to explore for a bit as the story ended. Will Evie find out who she is, or does already know who she really is?
I would’ve liked to have seen it expand on World War II more. I believe there were areas of the “family interaction” that could’ve been reduced in order to accommodate that.
Normally, I can go through a book in a few days. This is not one of my favorite genres, but I do enjoy a challenge. This book took 15 days to go through, so it was a difficult read (to be honest – basically a chore). Most of that difficultly was that I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters or finding any kind of point where I could relate to them. Perhaps this was due to my disconnect with their privilege.
I would recommend this book to those who are fans of the author, the genre, or the subject. A book to read, if only once in a lifetime.
“We vanish.” – Evie Milton
Thank you to Flatiron Books for an ARC of this book to review.