“The Guest Book” by Sarah Blake— Mistakes and Betrayals

Blake, Sarah. The Guest Book, Viking, 2019.

Mistakes and Betrayals

Amos Lassen

 Sarah Blake’s “The Guest Book” is a love story about mistakes and betrayals made in the past throughout generations. It looks at not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America. We follow three generations of a powerful American family that “used to run the world”.

The novel opens in 1935 when Kitty and Ogden Milton seemed to have everything— perfect children, good looks and a strong relationship based upon love. After a tragedy changes their lives, Ogden tries to bring Kitty back to life by purchasing an island in Maine. That island, and its house then define the Milton family, year after year after year. It is there that Kitty issues a refusal that will be with her  and haunt her until the day she dies.

In 1959 a young Jewish man, Len Levy, gets a job in Ogden’s bank and gains Ogden’s admiration as well as that of one of Ogden’s daughters. the admiration of Ogden and one of his daughters, but he also has to deal with 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.

By the 21st century, the last generation of the Milton’s doesn’t have the money to keep the island up. 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 sees that she is on the verge of finally understanding the silences that were always about the family and her personally. Past and present come together as we read about racism and power that was and, in fact, still is engrained in this country.

The Milton’s story is quite a family saga. T and they were active members of the WASP culture, a culture that practiced racism and antisemitism.  There are family secrets throughout the novel. The original couple, Ogden and Kitty escaped the world by living on the island.

Secrets abound throughout the novel. Ogden and Kitty Milton, descendants of “Old Money,” buy their own island in the 1930s to escape the real world. For many years, the island becomes their family’s personal utopia. In 1959, an incident will occur that will change the family forever. Kitty’s aristocratic background is indeed a part of her and she cannot get past it. She is a complex character and the choices she makes disturbs her all through her life. In the present time, the money is gone and the island must be sold. Kitty’s granddaughters, Evie and Min go to the island to take care of loose ends and as they do, they find disturbing secrets about their family’s history.

The Guest Book is a sweeping saga of three generations of the very rich Milton family from the 1930s to present day. It’s the story of not only how money and privilege isolate a family from the rest of the world but the way it affects their feelings about other races and religions. Each generation feeds their views and their secrets into the next until no one is really sure what is true about the family history.

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.

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 takes place during the spring and summer of 1959. Moss, the son, is supposed to go into the family business but wants to be a songwriter and he wants to write the music of a new, free, and liberated America. Joan, in the middle 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 a look at 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. Evie, a historian, does not know much about her own family and she is resistant to the questions her husband raises about them.

There are also other people come to the island 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. Two other visitors 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 setting is also one of the characters and the island plays an important part in the story but the real magic here comes in how “simple encounters expose the festering poisons that have infected our nation from its beginning.”

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