The Guest Book (Hardcover)
Flatiron Books, 9781250110251, 496pp.
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
May 2019 Indie Next List
— Dana Brigham, Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA
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Instant New York Times Bestseller
Longlisted for Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence
2020 New England Society Book Award Winner for Fiction
“The Guest Book is monumental in a way that few novels dare attempt.” —The Washington Post
The thought-provoking new novel by New York Times bestselling author Sarah Blake
An exquisitely written, poignant family saga that illuminates the great divide, the gulf that separates the rich and poor, black and white, Protestant and Jew. Spanning three generations, The Guest Book deftly examines the life and legacy of one unforgettable family as they navigate the evolving social and political landscape from Crockett’s Island, their family retreat off the coast of Maine. Blake masterfully lays bare the memories and mistakes each generation makes while coming to terms with what it means to inherit the past.
About the Author
Praise For The Guest Book: A Novel…
#1 Indie Next Pick
One of the Best Books of May: Entertainment Weekly, Refinery29, PopSugar, Bookish, BBC, Chicago Review of Books, Real Simple, Goodreads
“Thought-provoking and propulsive…Welcome to old money, new heartbreak, big secrets, and the kind of mouthwatering picnics nobody packs in real life (boiled eggs, tin of sandwiches, bottles of gin). But the North Star of Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book isn’t the Milton family—although they are fascinating, even the ghosts—it’s the Maine island cottage where they spend their summers.” —The New York Times Book Review
“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
“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’s latest novel, The Guest Book, is an engrossing epic that charts the course of the Milton family over three generations, from the 1930s to present day. Pertinent issues that have plagued American history like classism, prejudice, and identity are neatly tied in this transcendent novel.” —BookRiot
“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
“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
“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
“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.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Spanning three generations of Miltons, The Guest Book deserves a spot on your summer TBR in 2019.” —Bustle
“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 (starred review)
“This powerful family saga…is potent and mesmerizing.” —Publishers Weekly
“Blake is a masterful storyteller, whose past novel, The Postmistress, won considerable acclaim. I believe The Guest Book will as well.” —San Diego Jewish World
“A juicy family saga and an examination of the American elite.” —Refinery29
Praise for Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress
“Great books give you a feeling that you miss all day until you finally get to crawl back inside those pages again. The Postmistress is one of those rare books. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it.” —Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help
“Some novels we savor for their lapidary prose, others for their flesh and blood characters, and still others for a sweeping narrative arc that leaves us light-headed and changed; Sarah Blake’s masterful The Postmistress serves us all this and more.” —Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
“Even readers who don’t think they like historical novels will love this one and talk it up to their friends. Highly recommended for all fans of beautifully wrought fiction.” —Library Journal, starred review
“Blake captures two different worlds…with a deft sense of character and plot, and a perfect willingness to take on big, complex questions.” —Publishers Weekly
“To open Blake’s novel… is to enter a slipstream, so powerful are its velocity, characters, and drama.” —ALA Booklist, starred review
“The Postmistress belongs in what Gellhorn called ‘the permanent and necessary’ library.” —Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and Devotion
“Hits hard and pushes buttons expertly…Ms. Blake writes powerfully about the fragility of life….” —The New York Times
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
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?