Sarah Blake’s novel, The Guest Book, intrigues the reader by jumping back and forth between four generations in the life of a single, wealthy, American family. The saga spans the eras from pre-World War II to the present, following different members of the waspy Miltons as traditional, sociological, and racial hierarchies crumble around them and they struggle to pick up the pieces of their privilege.
There are fascinating Jewish characters on the periphery of this text and the fact that these characters are “Jewish” plays a role in the plot and trajectory of the novel. But most of the time, The Guest Book does not feel all that “Jewish.” The heart of this book is about the wasps of American society and how they have historically viewed “the other” — the immigrant, the black man, and the Jew — through their rose-tinted ideas of progress and the American dream. One finds themselves thinking about Hannah Arendt’s theories on the banality of evil when they see how quickly the upper echelons of society shirk their responsibility towards those suffering during the Holocaust. In a beautiful way, the author enables readers to see the underbelly of that evil and understand how most of humanity could rationalize and make excuses for why it was not their job to help those in need during WWII.
But this book is not just about how Jews were seen and “othered” by elite society over the past century, it is also about the danger of simplifying history or trying to put all the pieces of a family or nation’s story neatly together. The Miltons have their own perspective of a pristine America that they safely harbor on Crockett Island — the island that they own. Leon Levy, the Jewish parvenu, also has a view of the American dream, but he too is blind and can’t see the shadow his heritage casts over the future he so eagerly feels he has earned and will receive. Reg Pauling, the only black character in this story, tries to simplify the American narrative as well, yet when he forces the white privileged men surrounding him to see the inequality at the bedrock of their success, even he starts wondering how he might rebuild an America not crippled by its racist past.
The rich, the poor, the black, the Jewish, the healthy and the sick, all face their share of tragedy in this epic novel. Yet despite this equalizer, Sarah Blake does not believe that tragedy absolves anyone of the responsibility to face the reality of their present and past. The book’s central message may be for all to take an honest look at their roots and be willing to reflect on the messiness they uncover in the hopes of cultivating a less tragic future.