By – April 13, 2020

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.

Discussion Questions

The Guest Book is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, multi­gen­er­a­tional saga about a wealthy New Eng­land fam­i­ly who felt that noth­ing in their lives would or should ever change. The first gen­er­a­tion of Mil­tons suf­fered an unimag­in­able tragedy and nev­er spoke of it again. Their ques­tion­able ties dur­ing World War II enabled them to buy an island off the coast of Maine where they sum­mered and host­ed din­ner par­ties. This island is their guar­an­tee that every­thing will remain the same. As for­tunes dwin­dle, the grand­chil­dren must con­front the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they will have to sell the island.

In the process of going through the house, fam­i­ly secrets are dis­cov­ered, and explored. A very gen­teel” racism and anti­semitism are appar­ent as the next gen­er­a­tions open their tight cir­cle to a Jew and a black man. They invite them in, but only so far. You just don’t mar­ry a Jew; social­ize with a black man; or acknowl­edge that your son is gay.

The char­ac­ters are well devel­oped and believ­able. We see the grand­chil­dren ques­tion­ing their par­ents’ and grand­par­ents’ beliefs and deci­sions as they try to come to terms with the past.

With increased anti­semitism and racism in the world, the com­mit­tee felt that The Guest Book could lead to a mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion about fam­i­lies, white priv­i­lege in our soci­ety, and the dan­ger of sub­tle prejudice