Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake: A review

On the surface, The Guest Book tells the story of three generations of a privileged white American family. Dig underneath that surface just a bit and you find the history of our country from the mid-1930s until the present day with the racism of the powerful who control everything always casting its shadow over events.

The privileged white American family is the Miltons and in 1935 it seemed that Ogden and Kitty Milton had everything. They were rich and good looking and their marriage was a love match which everyone who knew them envied. They had three perfect children. Nothing untoward could touch them. Perhaps that is why when tragedy did come it was so devastating.

I must say it was devastating to this reader as well. It was so unexpected and it hit me right where I live.

After the family tragedy, Kitty was unable to recover and in order to bring her back and give her a reason to live, Ogden decided to buy an island off the coast of Maine. Crockett's Island. Because I guess that's what you do when you want to cheer up your grieving wife and you are rich!

His plan works and once we see the island we understand why. Here's a partial description of her first sighting of it: "The house on the hill, the spruce line behind it, these wide verdant fields whose grasses waved like girls at a fair." Yes, I would love it, too.

For three generations, the family spends its summers there and those who visit them there sign their names in the guest book. Among those who visited in 1936 were Elsa and Willy, a German woman and her Jewish son whom Ogden had met when he was pursuing his business in Germany. Elsa makes a request of Kitty and Kitty refuses her. It is a choice that will haunt Kitty for the rest of her life, along with that first tragedy.

The children grow up and embark on their adult lives. The island is full of life and it is the place where most members of the family feel most at home. Other people come to the island, including, in 1959, a young Jewish man who was an employee of the family business, Len Levy, and a black journalist/photographer named Reg Pauling. They were invited by the Miltons' son, Moss, a wannabe composer of music who was expected to some day take over the family business. Unbeknownst to the family, Levy was also the lover of their daughter, Joan. 

Needless to say, Jews and black people were about as scarce as hen's teeth on Crockett's Island. Their presence caused some predictable tensions, but, of course, everyone was very, very nice and civilized toward them because that's the kind of people they were. Nevertheless, the stage was set for a third tragedy.

Many years later, in the 21st century, the third generation, grandchildren of Ogden and Kitty, can no longer afford the island. One of the granddaughters, Evie, is a historian who is haunted by the fact that she doesn't really know her own family's history. There was a code of silence that was never broken, and, as she begins to uncover a few previously unknown facts, she becomes obsessed with learning more.

I found this to be a fascinating study of how silences build and secrets become firmly embedded in families, even if there is no logical reason for them to be. But when the silence is about something that is considered shameful, it can build and fester and poison lives even in future generations.

(In the same way, I suppose, silences fester and poison countries that refuse to face their pasts. One wonders, for example, what this country would look like if it finally faced and acknowledged the racism at its core, lanced it and let the poison drain away. It's funny the roads that fiction can take us down.)

Sarah Blake's writing in this novel is simply wonderful. She had me from the first page. I devoured her gorgeous descriptions of the island and her on-point social criticisms of the American social scene as represented by the Miltons and their friends and acquaintances. And I loved the historical view of our country. As Evie, the historian, once observed, there are facts and there are cracks between them. What fills those cracks is history. The Miltons and people like them fill some of those cracks.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

   

4 comments:

  1. Gee, the next time I bring my wife flowers I will remember that I should have bought her an island! Your comments regarding facing up to the past are spot on and relevant to the present perhaps more than ever, as new hatreds are being stirred up in addition to refusing to fully acknowledge past injustices. One wonders what might have happened in South Africa without the wisdom of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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    1. Indeed. We could certainly use the wisdom of a Nelson Mandela to guide us today.

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  2. I always meant to read her earlier novel, The Postmistress, and never got to it. Perhaps I should get to this one.

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    1. I think you will enjoy it if you do decide to read it.

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