Read by Orlagh Cassidy
Published May 2019 by Flatiron Books
Source: my audiobook copy checked out from my local library
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.
When I sit down to write a review and find myself flummoxed and stuck, I often turn to Ron Charles of The Washington Post. I don’t always agree with him; but he often helps me sort out my feelings. Why did I, for example, absolutely love this book at the beginning but end with such mixed feelings? As he frequently does, Charles helped me right the ship, even though we don’t entirely agree.
Charles, for example, has no patience for Evie’s long bouts of grief about the prospect of the third generation of Miltons losing their island, rightly doubting that most readers will feel sorry for her (you know, regular people whose family has never owned an island). And I had that feeling to some extent, too. I mean, Evie can’t even bear the thought of selling off a part of the island – boo hoo, you’ll still have half an island left. But I looked at Evie’s pain as the pain of a woman whose family was losing her grandparents’ home, the place where the family had always gathered, where she was surrounded by love and bonded with her cousins, where so many memories were made. I looked at that place in the same way I look at my parents’ home and thought about the way their grandchildren are feeling as we near the place where they will have to leave their home. Or the way I felt when my own grandparents moved out of the small home they’d lived in for decades, the only home I’d ever known them to have. It’s hard to say goodbye to all of those memories and I could relate to the way Evie was feeling as her cousins pushed her to let it go.
I’m better aligned with Charles on some of his other feelings about the book. The beginning is lovely, reminiscent, almost, of Edith Wharton, as Blake introduces us to the Miltons and their life of privilege. The publisher’s summary says that Kitty’s refusal was her defining moment but that’s not correct. Kitty’s defining moment was the moment her beloved son died. It was really then that she understood the life she was meant to live, the way “people like the Miltons” handle things. That word “no” was just the next step, a demonstration that she understood that her family must behave in a certain fashion and that she was fully on board with the idea that some people were beneath them. And it’s that idea that will come back to haunt her and result in catastrophe for her family in 1959.
I struggle with books that have both a past and present story line; they don’t always work for me. So often one story line is stronger than the other; and so often the modern story line feels like nothing more than a way to delve into the historical story in a way to make a mystery of it. Here Blake uses that device to judge her characters from a modern perspective and asks the question: if your life has been made better, at least in part, by the ill-gotten gains or prejudice of your ancestors, how do you rectify that? Evie has to struggle with this question as the book progresses but Blake doesn’t give her the full story until the book is nearly finished, too late for her to answer those questions. When she tells another character she doesn’t know what to do with the information she’s just been given, he tells her “it’s a start.” But I didn’t want to get to the end of nearly 17 hours of book, only to be told “it’s a start.”
This book brings to mind the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “There Was A Little Girl” because when it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad it is, if not quite horrid, messy, conflicted, and it goes on too long. Still, Blake has given readers a lot to think about - classism, racism, prejudice, betrayal, moral failings, and secrets – and you know I’m going to at least appreciate a book for doing that. I only wish this one had been structured a bit differently; it might have been a book I would have loved.
"[H]istory 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."