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The Guest Book: A Novel

by Sarah Blake

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5693830,772 (3.39)12
"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" --… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
Read this for book club - it is a great book to discuss. ( )
  carolfoisset | Dec 8, 2020 |
Ogden and Kitty Nash are a well-to-do couple with three children on the cusp of World War 2. When tragedy strikes their family and the beautiful daughter of one of Ogden's German business partners asks the impossible, they buy an island as a summer getaway, and their choices reverberate down the generations.

The narrative moves back and forth between Ogden and Kitty in 1936, their children in 1959, and their granddaughter Evie, a history professor in the present. The family has secrets galore, with the result that the reader understands much more than the characters, as the omniscient narrator switches among the perspectives of several family members and two outsiders, Len (a Jewish man) and Reg (a black man). The island is at once retreat and albatross to the families, who can't quite let go of their privilege. I found it a really frustrating read, as I couldn't really find it in me to care about this rich family's problems, but there is a lot of meat to the story for a book club ready to talk about class and privilege, race, secrets and silences, and the choices we make. ( )
  bell7 | Nov 28, 2020 |
Boy howdy, did this lengthy family saga nearly kill my reading mojo! The reviews were mixed, mostly negative, but I thought, 'Well, I love reading about generations of the same family where character is more important than action', so decided to take the plunge. BIG MISTAKE. I only finished, over a week later, because this is my hundredth book of the year and I didn't want another DNF.

At the heart, there is an interesting story, which kicks in towards the end, but there is a lot of introspective waffle about history and polite society to cut through first. And I didn't like any of the characters much either, which didn't help. Kitty, married to Ogden in the 1930s, was the worst - she is in charge of her young sons for precisely two minutes, asking the nanny to send them through to her after their bath, when she promptly lets the eldest boy fall out of an open window of their New York (high rise) apartment! No wonder the WASPs are dying off. Then after killing her son, to all intents, her husband buys a house and an island off the coast of Maine to help her recover. The house becomes the centre of the family - and the drama - for the next two generations. In the 50s, daughters Evelyn and Joan fight over which men they are allowed to marry - seriously - and surviving son Moss, who is a musician and 'sensitive' in the way of rich white men, courts an African American author named Reg, who scoffs at Moss' literary version of 'Ebony and Ivory'. New old blood is drawn into Milton family, who are all about 'the rules', and Reg and a Jewish guy are introduced to test the white characters with stereotypes. Granddaughter Evie - there seem to be about five Evelyns in the story, helpfully - tries desperately to hang onto the island and her family's decaying sense of pride in the modern day, or the 70s, I couldn't honestly tell. The timelines weave in and out in a way that confused even me, and a family tree would have been welcome!

I honestly loathed this book in places. Take the fight for the island house. Normally, I am 100% behind the character with a sense of history who wants to hold onto the past, against her mercenary relatives who want to sell for a profit, but this time I wanted one of Evie's cousins to burn the goddamned house to the ground. With her inside. Even when her mother's past is revealed, I didn't care. Let go! You're not royalty, nobody cares about your tatty house and grandmother's OCD! I couldn't even feel sorry for Moss, because he was so ridiculous.

The writing is also very clumsy and heavy-handed. There's a lot of 'Reg was black and Len was white, but together they were neither. Or rather, together they were both. They were each other’s shield' preschool exposition, which I resented. Yes, we get the point, thanks. Real people don't spend whole conversations discussing the nature of history and if lives can 'turn again', they just live them, which is what one minor character argues to Evie, ironically.

Anyway, I survived. Onwards! ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Nov 12, 2020 |
“One ought never burden others with one’s sorrows. One ought keep them to oneself.”

The Milton’s of Crockett Island appear to be put together and one happy family. However, appearances can be deceiving. And Kitty Milton lived her life by appearances. A family that has appears happy but has secrets. Wealthy enough for islands, but house on the island is crumbling. Sons and daughters trying to understand their parents. Outsiders trying to become part of the crowd instead of outside looking in.

This story broke my heart in different places. In the very beginning with an open window. In the 1930s with a request from one mother to another. In the late 1950s with love. And even in the 2000s with a daughter missing her mother’s story.

I felt like the story did take some time to get going. It was really driven by the characters and slowly you see where they are taking you. The storyline goes between Kitty, Joan, and Evie. A mother, daughter and grand-daughter respectively. In the present Evie is struggling with the loss of her mother Joan. In the past, Kitty is trying to keep up appearances and Joan is finding herself a woman in the world. And then there is Moss. The heir apparent in the late 1950s to keep the Milton name going. In the beginning it was hard for me to keep everyone straight, but once I got in the flow of the book, I really wanted to stay with the Milton family for as long as possible. The story is touching, sweet, and sad. It lets you see that even if you are taught not to share you sorrows sometimes it will really help you heal. ( )
  i.should.b.reading | Oct 29, 2020 |
4.5 Started a little slow, but took off abruptly and kept me spellbound thereafter. However, so many issues packed in this book - a little overwhelming to sort through at the end. The Milton family is NY aristocracy and Kitty and Ogden are a dazzling young couple with a promising nascent family (2 boys and a baby girl) in 1930s America. Despite the Depression gripping the rest of the country, Ogden's family business is booming - the source - heavy investment in Germany and the rising Nazi party. Issue 1. Ogden travels frequently to Germany and befriends the family of his business contact Waltzer. Elsa is married to a Jewish musician and they have a young son, but even her heavily connected father is not enough to save them. Issue 2. Meanwhile, stateside, the Miltons suffer tragedy when their older son Teddy has a tragic accident. The next oldest, Moss is witness, but the family never speaks of it again. Issue 3. Fast-forward to the present: Evie Milton is a college history professor, granddaughter to Kitty and Ogden, (now deceased) and heir to the island of of Maine Ogden bought after the tragedy, along with her 4 cousins (children of her mother's sister), born after the tragedy. They are not really able to afford it any longer and need to consider selling, but Evie is very emotionally attached and associates it with all happy memories of her childhood. To her professor husband it symbolizes all the privilege he never had growing up. Issue 4 & 5. The story shifts to the years after the war, when the next generation of Miltons follows Kitty and Ogden. It is 1959 and Moss and sisters Joan and Evelyn are young adults. Moss wants to write songs and challenge the upper class status quo, hanging out in jazz joints and befriending Reg Pauling, a black writer in Harlem, even though he is expected to enter the family business. Joan also blazes a trail in the work world - typist for a publishing company that is championing the controversial Ulysses by James Joyce. She becomes secretly romantically involved with Len Levy, a Jewish man who works for her father and is best friends with Pauling. Evelyn follows the traditional route of 'arranged' marriage to a man from a good society family, who in fairness is a good man himself. Issues 6 & 7. You can see the web begin to grow. The story moves from distant past to recent past to present pretty seamlessly, revealing additional information at each juncture. It all comes to a head on the island, at Evelyn's engagement party. Moss has invited Reg and Len, and they take him up on it, even though they are way out of their element. They are received politely on the surface because that is how Kitty operates in her society element, but some incidents occur in the course of the weekend that none of them can ever turn back from. In present day, Evie is totally ignorant of this family history - again, society dictates that secrets must be kept and reputations preserved, but it comes to light (a little too conveniently) while she and her cousin ready the island house to rent. Deftly handled when so many threads are in play, and the ending is mostly smooth and able to hold out to a surprising finish, and like The Postmistress the writing is thoughtful, eloquent and history is handled expertly and engagingly. Long and a little convoluted, but well worth the work. ( )
  CarrieWuj | Oct 24, 2020 |
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Epigraph
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. - James Baldwin
Surely it was time someone invented a new plot. - Virginia Woolf
Dedication
For my sons, Eli and Gus
And in memory of my brother, T. Whitney Blake 1962-2017
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"It's the usual story," the man at the tiller reflected, regarding the beautiful derelict on the hill.
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"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" --

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Kitty and Ogden Miller 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 him 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 until the day she dies.
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