By Sarah Blake
Rating: 5/5 Stairs
The Guest Book is one of those books I just sank down into and savored every word. I took it with me on vacation, and I couldn’t put it down. I loved Ms. Blake’s writing style. The story starts in 1935 and chronicles the Milton family up through 1959, alternating this history with the third-generation Milton’s in the present.
Goodreads has an excellent non-spoilery summary of the book.
The Guest Book is an epic family saga, following the Milton family over three generations. Kitty is the matriarch of the family, and one of her primary lessons she has learned as a well-bred woman is to keep silent. Keep silent about anything uncomfortable, unpleasant, unbearable. Bury it deep. Change the subject. Lighten the mood. Don’t discuss.
In 1935 a terrible tragedy befalls the family, which becomes the catalyst to the entire story. (A tragedy which Kitty is so quiet about, by the end of the book I realized I don’t think anyone in the second- or third-generation of the family even knew it ever happened. Which was so, so sad to me.) To help Kitty through her grief, her husband Ogden buys her an island off the coast of Maine. Yes, you read that right. An island. These people have money.
He looked back down into her face, willing her to shift off all the sorrow and quiet of the last year, willing her forward toward the flank of granite beach, the spruce trees and this light.
“Come on.” He squeezed and pulled her up the lawn with him. And she felt the shock of seeing forward, how many times they would walk up the hill to that house with their children, and perhaps their children’s children. Ogden’s dream in place. Ogden’s dream right here. And Kitty walked toward the house on the hill, a spot in time she would return to like a stone in her pocket she could reach for and rub, over and over in the years to come.
This particular passage just spoke to me. Experiencing something for the first time, and knowing your memory of that moment will be with you whenever you return.
As the years go by, the Island is a constant for the Miltons, spending each summer there. And Kitty’s insistence on keeping the unpleasant quiet ends up building many family secrets.
In the present day, Kitty’s granddaughter Evie is in a battle with her cousins over the fate of the Island. They all inherit the property after Evie’s mother’s death, but realize they don’t have enough money to keep it up. The Island is a special place to Evie, and she’s determined to keep it and their family history. And maybe learn more about her forever unreachable mother in the process.
Now, I have seen some complaints from other reviewers.
- The book was too slow at the beginning. They couldn’t get into it. — I didn’t have that problem. I loved the writing style and was hooked from the start.
- Kitty was unlikeable. — She really was, but I also think it was a generational thing too. She behaved in the way she had been told a proper woman of society must behave, and never changed with the times. Was she elitist, privileged, and racist? Absolutely. By the end I may not have liked her decisions (oh my gosh, some were so much worse than others), but realized that for the most part she was making what she thought were the best decisions at the time for her family. AND most importantly – you don’t always have to like a character to like a book.
- The book is too descriptive. – Again, writing style. I liked it.
I found The Guest Book to be fascinating – as both a family saga, and as a look at society. It was one of those books I just kept thinking about long after I put it down. I think this is going to be one of my favorites of 2019.