THE GUEST BOOK
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,
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.
- Flatiron Books
- May 2019
- 496 Pages
#1 Indie Next Pick for May
One of the Best Books of May: Entertainment Weekly, Refinery29, PopSugar, Bookish, BBC, Chicago Review of Books, Real Simple, Goodreads
“Beautifully crafted….The Milton family history, rife with secrets and moral failings, including a deep-seated bigotry, is a timely tale of America itself. An enveloping and moving page-turner.” —People, Book of the Week
“Sarah Blake writes in the historical fiction tradition of someone like Herman Wouk…[She] is an accomplished storyteller, braiding in a large cast of characters and colorful excursions.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“Sarah Blake is such a beautiful writer she can make any world shimmer, but The Guest Book is particularly fascinating—an intergenerational exploration of memory, identity, love, and family loyalty, of what it costs to inherit a name, a place, and a difficult alignment with history. Powerful and provocative storytelling.” —Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin
“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
“Blake masterfully tells the Miltons’ history—racism, prejudice, betrayal, loss, and all—and in the process, captures a slice of American history as well.” —Real Simple
“Sarah Blake delivers a juicy multi-generational novel.” —Chicago Review of Books
“It’s a gorgeous book with a strong sense of place, like Empire Falls….If you’re going to read one book this summer make it this modern-day classic.” —The Missourian
“Do you ever pick up a book just to check it out and find yourself lost in it an hour later trying to rearrange your life so you can just keep reading? Well that happened to me this week [with The Guest Book].” —WYPR, Baltimore
“Sarah Blake spins a fascinating epic that touches on privilege and ambition, racism and grief, revealing as much about America’s identity as it does the Miltons.” —Christian Science Monitor
“There are glimmers of To the Lighthouse in Blake’s lyrical and questing new novel.” —BBC
“I loved The Guest Book. Sarah Blake has managed the extraordinary feat of writing both an intimate family saga and an ambitious excavation of the subterranean currents of race, class, and power that have shaped America. This is a vivid, transporting novel, written by a master conjuror of time and place.” —Jessica Shattuck, New York Times bestselling author of The Women in the Castle
“Sarah Blake’s powerful, beautifully written story portrays a couple’s secret choices that come to haunt succeeding generations. The Guest Book is richly atmospheric and morally compelling in a way that stirs the mind long after the last page.” —Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky
“Epic and sweeping, without ever leaving behind the personal and profound, The Guest Book is a reminder of what novels do better than anything else. Without losing their specificity, three generations of Milton women reveal something about every family, the secrets and unspoken truths that color everything that happens to us. This is a book you will be dying to talk to someone about.” —Arthur Phillips, author of The Tragedy of Arthur and Prague
“Spanning three generations of Miltons, The Guest Book deserves a spot on your summer TBR in 2019.” —Bustle
1. 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?
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?
The fall had turned to winter and then back again without conviction, November’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, so that even in April, in the Bowery in New York City, the braziers still glowed on street corners, and a man trying to warm his hands could watch the firelight picked up and carried in the windows above his head and imagine the glow traveling 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 taxicab on the way to meet her mother at the Philharmonic.
It was 1935.
She wore a soft cloche hat that belled below her ears, casting her eyes into shadow and making more pronounced the soft white of her chin tipped forward a little upon her long neck. Her coat swung easily around her knees, her upright figure swathed in a foamy green silk dress, the woolen coat just a shade darker.
The taxi pulled away from the curb toward Central Park, and through the window spring unfurled above her head in the elm trees, and down along the walkways the forsythia shouted its yellow news. She leaned her head upon the leather.
Life is wide, girls, Miss Scrivener had bid them all, years ago. Cross it with your arms open. And standing before the schoolgirls ranged in rows, all six feet of her—an old maid, her fiancé killed in the Great War—their teacher had thrown out her arms.
And Kitty hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry.
Well, wide it was, Kitty thought now, spring begun and nothing ahead but possibility. Ogden would be home soon from abroad; the ground had been broken on their house in Oyster Bay. She was thirty. It was ’35. Neddy was five, Moss was three, and baby Joan had just turned one. Her head filled with the delicious math of life—the word flushed up onto her cheeks and into her eyes, broadening into a smile as the taxi moved up Fifth Avenue.
She caught the driver’s eye in the mirror and knew she ought to turn her head away so he didn’t see her, smiling like an idiot, but she held his gaze instead. He winked. She smiled back and slid down on the seat, closing her eyes as the taxi plunged into the tunnel moving east to west, underneath the playgrounds in the park where her children were playing with a concentrated fury against the end of the morning, the arrival of lunchtime, crawling around the great bronze statue of a beloved Scottish poet, perching like little sparrows on the giant knee, climbing (if they were lucky, if their nurse wasn’t watching) all the way up to his massive sloping shoulder.
But the Milton boys were not lucky that way; the Milton boys’ nurse told them to get down, right now, get down immediately and come here.
Moss, the younger, who did not like when grown-ups looked at him with that distant, frowning attention that signaled more attention coming after, coming closer, slid off the statue, too quickly, and landed on one bare knee. “Ow,” he mouthed, and lowered his cheek to the hot, scuffed skin. “Ouch.”
But his brother had paid no attention to Nurse below him, their baby sister, Joan, on her big hip; Neddy kept climbing, creeping to the top of the statue’s head, and was—what was he doing?
“Edward.” Nurse moved quickly forward. “Edward! Get down. This instant.”
The boy was going to fall.
He had planted both feet, one on either side of the great head, the shaggy bronze hair covering the two ears, a foot on either shoulder, and was carefully, slowly, pushing himself up to stand, aloft.
The boy was going to break his neck.
“Edward,” Nurse said, very quietly now.
The other children stopped their crawling, frozen where they were on the statue, watching the boy above them who had climbed so high. Now he was the only thing moving upon the bronze.
Slowly, carefully, Neddy raised himself, pushing off the poet’s head, wavering just an instant, then catching steady, and stood all the way up. Steady and up so high. Compact, perfect, he stood on the statue’s shoulders, a small being in short pants and a cardigan, now regarding the world of upturned, worried faces below him.
“Moss,” he squawked. “Lookit.”
And Moss tilted his head and saw up through the folds of the statue’s jacket, the great thick hands, up past another boy clinging to the open page of that enormous book, Neddy far above, standing, grinning, and crowing.
If he’d held out his hand and said Come, fly! Moss would have flown. For when your brother calls come, you step forward, you take his hand and go. How can you not? It was always him in the front, going first.
His head tipped, his cheek still on his knee, Moss grinned up at his brother.
Neddy nodded and lightly, easily, bent again and slid from the top of the bronze lump, clambering all the way down, arriving with a little bounce as he dropped to the pebbled ground.
“Your father,” Nurse promised, “will hear of this. This is going on the list.”
She unlocked the brake on the pram and pushed the boy’s shoulder roughly. “The list, Edward. You hear me?”
Neddy nodded. And started marching forward.
Moss stole his hand into his brother’s. Both boys kept step, ahead of the pram, their little backs straight as soldiers. Smiling.
There would be no list, they knew. It was only Mother at home. Father was in Berlin.
Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Blake