Guest Book

The Guest Book
Sarah Blake
Reviewed by Phil

“The Guest Book” documents the lives of three generations of the Milton family, powerful New England bluebloods that trace their roots back to The Mayflower. Theirs is a family built on tradition, where things are “better left unsaid” so that no-one “rocks the boat.” But there are secrets and sadness within the family.

It’s 1935. Like his father and grandfather before him, Ogden Milton is president of Milton, Higginson and Company, a private investment bank. He is in Germany negotiating a deal with a German steelmaker when news of the death of one of his sons reaches him. Following this tragic accident, his wife, Kitty, withdraws into herself. In an effort to rekindle their lives together, Ogden takes Kitty on a trip to Maine. They purchase an island, Crockett’s Island, and make it their summer home.

The guest book of the title refers to the record the Miltons keep of all the visitors to the island: people like them, privileged and powerful and Protestant. But the record stops abruptly one day, the last name entered, Len Levy. And what is the meaning of the old photograph, torn in half, with the unfinished sentence, “the morning of…” written on the back.

Sarah Blake has written a powerful novel that explores the themes of race, class and family. The writing is superb, deftly conjuring up the island in Maine and the beautiful home where the Miltons spend their summers. The chapters switch back and forth between the different generations, as Blake carefully peels away the layers that make up the family’s history, revealing the nuanced rituals of family life, and the stresses and strains that underlie outward appearances. It’s beautifully done.

Sarah Blake lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two children. “The Guest Book” is her third novel. Her first novel, “Grange House” (2001), was also set in Maine. Her second novel, “The Postmistress” (2010), was a New York Times bestseller.