Guest Book (Blake)

The Guest Book 
Sarah Blake, 2019
Flatiron Books
448 pp.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 10, 1960
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.A., San Francisco State University; Ph.D., New York University
Currently—lives in Washington, DC

Born in New York City, Sarah Blake has a BA from Yale University and a PhD in English and American Literature from New York University. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, Full Turn (Pennywhistle Press, 1989); an artist book, Runaway Girls (Hand Made Press, 1997) in collaboration with the artist, Robin Kahn; and two novels. Her first novel, Grange House, (Picador, 2000) was named a "New and Noteworthy" paperback in August, 2001 by the New York Times. Her second novel, The Postmistress, was by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in February 2010. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Good Housekeeping, US News and World Reports, the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere.

Sarah taught high school and college English for many years in Colorado and New York. She has taught fiction workshops at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, MA, The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, the University of Maryland, and George Washington University. She lives in Washington, DC.

From a 2009 Barnes & Noble interview:

• In the three summers while I was in college, I tried out three different lives in my summer jobs—full immersion: intern at an Art Auction house in NYC; kitchen girl at a dude ranch in Montana; jewelry store clerk in a tiny shop on an island off the coast of Sicily. I took the immersion a little too close to heart for my mother—after the second summer, in my incarnation as a cowgirl, I announced I was thinking about quitting college, marrying the cowboy I was dating there, and becoming a rancher. How could I not? The cowboy left me love letters hidden in the horn of my saddle.

• I am a big gardener and re-arranger of furniture. The two are inextricably related, in my mind, to my writing. When I can't figure out a scene, or when I'm stumped as to why a character makes a certain choice—I go out and dig, and plot and plan and rearrange. In the winter, handily, there are similar chances to plot and plan and rearrange inside the house. When I get an idea in my head about how a room might look, I am completely obsessed with trying it out, right then and there. One night I was certain that the problem with our living room was the rug and that the answer to the problem lay upstairs on the third floor in my son's bedroom. Never mind that it was eleven o'clock and he was fast asleep, and the bed he slept in lay squarely on top of the rug. I jimmied and lifted and snatched the rug out from under the sleeping child, hauled it down the three flights, and then lifted and lowered and hauled the furniture around down in the living room. By the time my husband came home at midnight, I had just finished rolling the rug out in the living room. We both stared at it. It was completely and totally wrong.

• I come from a big family of singers—around the campfire, in a cappella groups in school, in the back of the car—and I love to sing, love to hear singing. Similarly, I grew up listening to grown ups talking at dinner, extending dinner late into the night, all of us ranged around a big table in the house my grandparents bought in the "30s in Maine. My idea of happiness is just that: many faces, many generations, much discussion, candles and talk while the dishes shift in the sink.

• I love fog. I love rain. I love the moment right after a play ends—the second of pure silence when everyone in the theatre, actors and audience, are joined—before the clapping starts and the actors bow and we pick up our lives again.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her response:

There are all the books I read curled up on a couch in summer childhood—all the "Little House" books, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, A Wrinkle in Time—that gave me worlds right there where I sat, while the hot wind of New Haven drifted over the window sill. That feeling of reading worlds, of diving down below the surface of my own life made me a reader, an irredeemable bookworm.

But it was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf that made me want to become a writer. I read her sentences—all the beauty and the longing in them—and I simply wanted to write them myself. The way her characters thought and moved, the light and sound she captured of a summer day—all this I wanted to make mine. She showed me how to capture what she calls "moments of being"—clear, resonant times in our lives of pure beauty, caught just as they vanish.

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Blake can write with the dramatic heft of Arthur Miller…The Guest Book is monumental in a way that few novels dare attempt.
Washington Post

There are glimmers of To the Lighthouse in Blake’s lyrical and questing new novel.

An American epic in the truest sense…Blake humanely but grippingly explores the heart of a country whose past is based in prejudice.
Entertainment Weekly

[A] powerful family saga… Blake has a particular knack for dialogue; she knows exactly how to reveal the hidden depths of the characters both through what is said and what is unsaid. The result is potent and mesmerizing.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Breathtaking…Blake saturates each scene with sensuous and emotional vibrancy while astutely illuminating sensitive moral quandaries. Blake deftly interrogates the many shades of prejudice and ‘the ordinary, everyday wickedness of turning away.’ Blake’s brilliant and ravishing novel promises to hit big.

(Starred review) The story of the Miltons engages not just with history and politics, but with the poetry of the physical world. This novel sets out to be more than a juicy family saga―it aims to depict the moral evolution of a part of American society. Its convincing characters and muscular narrative succeed on both counts.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Evie teaches her students that…

[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.

Do you agree with her? How do the characters in this novel shape history? And whose history do they shape?

2. 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 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?

3. Evie reflects at one point:

The jobs had been gotten, the beds made, the dishes washed, the children sprouted. The wheel had stopped and now what? Where, for instance, was the story of a middle-aged orphan with the gray streak in her hair, the historian who had rustled thirteenth-century women’s lives out of fugitive pages who believed more than most that there was no such thing as the certainty of a plot in the story of a life, in fact who taught this to students year in and year out, and yet who found herself lately longing above all else for just that? Longing, against reason, for some kind of clear direction, for the promise of a pattern. For the relief, she pulled against the shoulder strap of her satchel, the unbearable relief of an omniscient narrator.

What does she mean? What is the significance of the author’s choice to make Evie middle-aged?

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? Do you think the author is consciously echoing Evie with what she tells her students (question #1) in referencing "you"? And if so,what does the author suggest 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?

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. 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.

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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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 we do once we see the full story (or history) of a place? In light of Elsa’s words in the beginning (question#4), perhaps it’s not so simple, but is it hopeful?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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