6 reviews

The Guest Book: A Novel
by Sarah Blake

Published: 2019-05-07
Hardcover : 496 pages
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Instant New York Times Bestseller

The Guest Book is monumental in a way that few novels dare attempt.” ?The Washington Post

The thought-provoking new novel by New York Times bestselling author Sarah Blake

A lifetime of secrets. A history untold.

No. It is a simple word, uttered on a ...

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Instant New York Times Bestseller

The Guest Book is monumental in a way that few novels dare attempt.” ?The Washington Post

The thought-provoking new novel by New York Times bestselling author Sarah Blake

A lifetime of secrets. A history untold.

No. It is a simple word, uttered on a summer porch in 1936. And it will haunt Kitty Milton for the rest of her life. Kitty and her husband, Ogden, are both from families considered the backbone of the country. But this refusal will come to be Kitty’s defining moment, and its consequences will ripple through the Milton family for generations. For while they summer on their island in Maine, anchored as they are to the way things have always been, the winds of change are beginning to stir.

In 1959 New York City, two strangers enter the Miltons’ circle. One captures the attention of Kitty’s daughter, while the other makes each of them question what the family stands for. This new generation insists the times are changing. And in one night, everything does.

So much so that in the present day, the third generation of Miltons doesn’t have enough money to keep the island in Maine. Evie Milton’s mother has just died, and as Evie digs into her mother’s and grandparents’ history, what she finds is a story as unsettling as it is inescapable, the story that threatens the foundation of the Milton family myth.

Moving through three generations and back and forth in time, The Guest Book asks how we remember and what we choose to forget. It shows the untold secrets we inherit and pass on, unknowingly echoing our parents and grandparents. Sarah Blake’s triumphant novel tells the story of a family and a country that buries its past in quiet, until the present calls forth a reckoning.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of May 2019: Sarah Blake’s latest novel, The Guest Book, is a gorgeous epic that charts the course of an American family over three generations, from the 1930s to present day. Blake draws you into the Milton clan, and the more I became privy to their secrets, fears, and desires, the more I felt at home with every flawed one of them. Early in the novel, Blake’s character Evie tells her students, "History is between the cracks,” and so it is in this book: a history created in moments big and small, knitting itself together inside us, and of us. Crockett Island, off the coast of Maine, bought by Kitty and Ogden Milton in 1936 as a place of refuge and legacy, is as much a character in the novel as those who gather there. Through Blake’s writing I could smell the ocean, see the lilac tree beside the door. And I could feel Kitty and Ogden’s dream fray when the grandchildren inherit the island and all it represents. The Miltons’ story mirrors the times in which they lived, and we watch as parents and siblings make choices driven by ambition, prejudice, or pride that later haunt them and their progeny. Issues of gender inequality, classism, racism, breaking free from the past—Blake tackles them all, because all play an important role in the history of the family as well as that of the country in which we live. There is so much I want to tell you about this book. So many passages I have underlined and returned to. Instead, I invite you to visit the Miltons of Crockett Island in the pages of The Guest Book yourself, so that you too may experience the emotional resonance of Blake’s remarkable and thought-provoking novel. —Seira Wilson, Amazon Book Review


Chapter One

The fall had turned to winter and then back again without conviction, No- vember’s chill taken up and dropped like a woman never wearing the right coat until finally December laughed and took hold. Then the ice on the black pathways through the park fixed an unreflecting gaze upward month after month, the cold unwavering through what should have been spring, what should have been warming, so that even in April, in the Bowery in New York City, the braziers still glowed on street corners, and a man try- ing to warm his hands could watch the firelight picked up and carried in the windows above his head and imagine the glow travelling all the way along the avenues, square by square above the streets, all the way uptown and into the warm apartments of those who, pausing on the threshold to turn off the light, left their rooms, and descended in woolens and furs, grumbling about the cold—good god, when will it end—until it turned without fanfare one morning in May, and spring let loose at last. All over the city, children were released from their winter coats and out into the greening arms of Central Park, so here we all are again, thought Kitty Milton, stepping into the taxi cab on the way to meet her mother at the Philharmonic. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

**Spoiler Alert**

1. Discuss the significance of the title. What does the Miltons’ guest book represent in this novel? Are Len and Reg guests? Is there any significance to the fact that Reg never signs the book?

2. Evie teaches her students that “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.” Do you agree with her? How do the characters in this novel shape history? And whose history do they shape?

3. Central to Paul’s academic work is the idea that “there is the crime and there is the silence.” How does that statement echo throughout the novel, specifically in his and Evie’s conversations about the stumble stones in Germany? How does it echo throughout twentieth-century American history more broadly? How is that silence a kind of willed forgetting? Do you think Ogden was right to not divest from Nazi Germany and try to work within the regime? Was this a version of silence that Paul is criticizing? What kinds of silences do we reproduce in our lives in this country, now?

4. During her trip to America, Elsa tells Mrs. Lowell: “Forgive me…but it is a mistake to think news happens somewhere else. To others. The news is always about you. You must simply fit yourself in it. You must see how—you must be vigilant.” Do you agree? How does her warning resonate for each generation of Miltons? What about in your own life? Do you think the author is consciously echoing Evie with what she tells her students (question #2) in referencing “you”? And if so, what is the author trying to say about collective responsibility?

5. On the porch later that evening, after Kitty says no to Elsa, Kitty is maddened by Elsa’s reading of her refusal. “For god’s sake,” she says, “it’s not so simple.” And Elsa replies, “But it is. It’s very simple. It always is.” Is Kitty’s refusal simple? How might Neddy’s death have shaped her thoughts? Does it let her off the hook in terms of Elsa’s request? Discuss the role of anti-Semitism within the novel. Do you think Kitty and Evelyn would have objected to Len if he hadn’t been Jewish but solely from a lower class? Do you think Joan ultimately rejects Len because he is Jewish? What do you make of what Len’s son, Charlie, tells Evie: that was the night “a Jew died too”?

6. Evie says of her parents’ generation that they seem to have “inherited their days rather than chosen them, made do with what they had, and so they peopled the rooms rather than lived in them, ghosting their own lives.” Is that a fair assessment? Discuss the similarities and differences between the various generations of Miltons in this novel in relation to what they have been given.

7. At Evelyn’s engagement, Ogden toasts: “Behind every successful man is a good woman…Or so the saying goes. But I suggest a good woman is the reason men put up walls and gardens, churches. The reason men build at all. At the center of every successful man is a good woman.” How do you read this in light of Evie’s thesis, about the anchoress? Discuss the gender dynamics at play in the different marriages in this novel.

8. Min tells Evie: “Jung believed the Hero was not the young man setting forth with his sword to conquer parts unknown…The true Hero is the man in middle age, who traveled backwards in order to be able to return.” What is the significance of setting Evie’s story line during middle age, the stage of life her best friend refers to as “the In Betweens”?

9. Watching Moss on the night of the party, Reg thinks: “Moss sang his heart on his sleeve, as if all the gates of the world would open with him, believing that they could, with all his heart. But here on the island, the care with which Reg was being handled, the pronounced attention was merely the opposite face of the face that gave the hard stare, or the push between the ribs, or the whip. Both faces turned to the black man as though to a wall that had to be climbed or knocked down—and always with the infinitesimal moment of wariness that slid immediately into anger or polite regard. As if to say, ah, you again.” How does Reg’s point of view here counter and complicate Moss’s optimistic belief that he can write a song that unites all Americans? What is Reg seeing? Do you think the Miltons ever come to see what he sees? Is Kitty’s attempt at reparation for the past by including Reg in her will an indication of this sight? Or simply more of the same?

10. Reg tells Moss: “You can’t slip your history, man. That’s what I’m telling you. That’s the story I keep getting, again and again. Those people…your parents—whatever they did, whatever they didn’t do in their lives—that’s what’s in you. No matter what you say, or do.” Do you think he’s right? Are the sins of the father, or in this case, the sins of the mother, inherited by the children? How much agency do the different characters have, and how much are their fates shaped by their last name or identity?

11. Moss describes to Reg the experience of seeing A Raisin in the Sun: “It was the first time I’d ever seen my own story on the stage…To see something, to want it that bad. To want and want and know that it’s impossible—it’s impossible.” What do you think about Moss, a privileged white man, making a claim like that regarding a seminal play about the experience of African Americans? In the rowboat on the island, Reg says he wants to be “alongside,” and Moss says, “You are.” What does that midnight conversation reveal? Discuss Moss’s friendship with Reg and the limits they face in understanding each other’s experiences.
12. Joan tells Evie, “You can’t revise what’s happened. Nor should you. A life can change in a single moment and from there you simply move forward.” Evie asks, “But can’t you re-do, Mum?…Can’t there be many moments? Can’t a life turn and re-turn and turn again?” We see that Hazel wants to revise Evie’s thesis on the Anchoress. Discuss the different ways in which the women of this novel view history, and the possibility of revising a life.

13. Paul tells Evie: “There is no story until we’re dead, and then our children tell it. We are just living. Your mother was living. Stop looking for what’s not there. Nothing happened—life happened. Reality is not a story.” Do you agree? What does Paul’s view suggest about how much we can ever truly know our family members? How does Paul’s statement complicate Evie’s view of history? Given that we know there was a story beneath the story of Joan’s life, a story that Evie couldn’t see, what does this suggest about the relation between truth and reality? What does that suggest about the act of novel writing?

14. What do you think about Joan’s wish to have her ashes buried, nameless, under a stone that says Here? What is she marking? What is the power of that word? How does it resonate with the relation between memory and place that the novel suggests?

15. When Anne realizes that Joan never told Evie about Len, she decides not to say anything because Joan’s story “wasn’t hers to tell.” Reg originally intends not to disclose this to Evie but ultimately changes his mind. Who do you think did the right thing? Is it important that Evie know who her biological father was? Why? And is it important who tells her the story?

16. What does Crockett’s Island represent for each generation of Miltons? Discuss the pros and cons of Evie’s generation fighting to keep the island or let it go. In what ways can a place both bind and define us? And how does the story we tell about ourselves connect to that place? Does your family have a place with a similar kind of significance?

17. In the middle of the novel, Kitty is uneasy with what she calls Moss’s “overabundance of conscience,” and thinks: “Responsibility was not an absolute. We were kind, we were generous, but we did not owe more than we could give.” At the end of the novel, before he says goodbye, Reg asks Evie what she will do with the island now that she knows its more complicated truths, and when she says, “I don’t know,” he answers, “That’s a start.” What do you think he means by that? What has started? What is the novel asking about the relation between knowledge of the past and responsibility to one another in the present? How does Reg’s response ask us to think about what do we do once we see the full story (or history) of a place? In light of Elsa’s words in the beginning, perhaps it’s not so simple, but is it hopeful?

18. “We vanish,” Evie whispers in the novel’s final line. What is the effect of those words on you? What is their significance and how do they echo across the entire novel that came before?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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The Guest Book, Sarah Blake, author; Orlagh Cassidy, narrator.
This is a lengthy book which attempts to tackle some very serious historic societal problems. Using a healthy number of charac
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