Follow Us @burtonreview

Jun 30, 2019

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake
published May 2019 Flatiron Books
borrowed from the library

An unforgettable love story, 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 21st 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, The Guest Book looks at the racism and power that has been systemically embedded in the US for generations. Brimming with gorgeous writing and bitterly accurate social criticism, it is a literary tour de force.

I picked up this title from the library as I had seen it marketed around the internet and it seemed to really be well received. And I love sagas, this is definitely one. But I have a strong dislike for "literary masterpiece" type of reads as those seem to be a total bore and a letdown and pretty much a political tirade or something similar. Or so I thought. I struggled getting into this novel, I really did. The very first sentence was a signal of things to come and I was not pleased. I was completely turned off and quite frankly, confused. At a long 5% later I was reading reviews of the book and totally trying to determine if I should keep going. Some readers were as confused and bored as I was and just stopped. Somehow it seemed you either loved or hated this one, so I wanted to keep going.

Looking back at my reading progress it seems somewhere between 5% and 20% I was able to dig in and start caring about these characters and that for me is the key to my enjoyment of a novel. It is definitely a wordy novel hence the term 'literary' but I was able to get on board with the tones and nuances of the passionate voice of this novel as a whole. This is a story of an upper class family the Miltons and is told through the eyes of different generations of the family which causes a bit of confusion as the narration changes. The women are all strong members of the Milton clan and they actually own a little island in New England. What to do with that island as the last generation is forced to come to terms with it and their place in today's America is the question. Is it a status symbol? Is it a part of them? How important is it to own an island? Why the hell should we care?

17 highlights on the kindle version means that were so many points getting a rise out of me that I was like, 'YES! THIS!'. There are things that define a family, which could be a stigma or a gift. The island could be either. Perception is a key theme to this novel: perceptions and prejudice of both race and wealth. This saga demonstrates how easily misperception can ruin a family and cloud a stranger's judgement. One of the main characters is Reg Paulding who is a black man on the outside of the Milton family, yet Moss Milton really wants to include Reg:
"Most people in the rest of the country would walk in here and see one black man sitting where he shouldn’t.” Moss shook his head stubbornly. “We are sitting together, and that’s the fact. Anything can happen from here on out. Anything is possible. Big ears, man. You gotta have big ears.”

The inclusion of an angry young man at one party has such debilitating repercussions and shows that those are too self-absorbed in their own hurt can never realize the good out of life. "No one knew what to do with him sitting there. Classmate? Roommate? Checkmate."  Reg's role is pivotal in the Milton saga whether he wants to be or not. He can treat it as a chess game but in the end it is life and then death. 

The shifting narration that was so hard to get used to in the beginning actually is a symbol in itself, as it is indicative that history repeats itself and generation upon generation we seem to make the same mistakes over and over, but under the guise of some new freedom that we feel is being trampled upon. What is real? What is imagined?

But there was no freedom without history. That was America in him.

I finished this novel with a heartache, a passionate response to this book that I didn't quite grasp its purpose until later but it was so very good I do definitely recommend this to those who have the perseverance to get through to the core.

"He thinks he can change the world—” He sighed. “But the world does not change. Only you do."

I turned off commenting long ago on the blog but I welcome comments at the Facebook page here.