City Paper is not for tourists
Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book, about three generations of the upper-crust New York Milton family, confronts immigration, the Great Depression, and racial integration, spanning decades from the 1930s to the present. The theme it takes up most relentlessly is Jewish assimilation into the WASP elite, examining these interrelations, intermarriages, and how Old Money gradually ceded ground to the children of immigrants. Fittingly, a central character, Evie Milton, is a historian.
The story begins with Ogden and Kitty Milton buying an island off the coast of Maine in the 1930s. Ogden is an investment banker who does business in Berlin, which causes him to come into contact with Nazis, whom he intensely dislikes. His German associate Walser had a Jewish wife and has a Jewish son-in-law, Hoffman. The fate of Walser’s daughter, husband, and son, who must resist fascism, shadows the Miltons’ lives and haunts the gracious banker and his family. Ogden is not the sort to be haunted by anything: “Milton made his way through the park, his lineage hanging lightly on his well formed limbs, the habit of knowing just what to do in any given moment having been passed down from generation to generation.” Unfortunately, “knowing just what to do” did not prepare him or any of his class for Nazi barbarity; it took years for them to realize they had to go to war against it.
The Hoffmans’ fate in Nazi Germany profoundly alters the Miltons in unpredictable ways that the author masterfully weaves throughout the narrative, making them question their own application of their code—“Everyone here could be trusted to behave as they had been raised. To be good, to be kind. To think of others.” The past plagues the present as Blake’s characters begin to glimpse the volcanic events in their parents’ lives, of which they were utterly unaware.
The novel also addresses the vital but ornamental role of women in the Old Money setting and how that changed from the ’30s to the ’70s. For the older generation, that role is clear. As one character explains it: “Every one of you knows the key to life is who you marry. If you set your sights on the right girl, you need never look back. Nothing is more important in a man’s life than the girl he chooses.” By the time Evie Milton attends college in the late ’70s, feminism has swept the country and changed the landscape for women, even Milton women.
The Miltons’ sense of entitlement based on class is adroitly drawn. The portrait is never heavy-handed, but it is frank and direct. The Miltons see themselves as the world’s quiet rulers, a view especially strong with the older generation. “Here were the inheritors of the earth, Kitty thought; the sense of solidity, of granite, of rightness and the force of permanence was everywhere around them. The world had been theirs so long, it was a given.” The Miltons and their class wielded power differently from contemporary elite smash and grab looters—they had a paternalistic sense of responsibility, without which, the mask falls.
The novel’s clearly depicted characters, contemplating their genealogy and their mortality, are interwoven with these larger themes. As a historian, Evie has spent her career delving into the lives of the long dead. As a woman with a family tree that at times overwhelms her, again, she must focus on who is gone and her own mortality: “And why just then, why that moment was the moment in which she understood quite suddenly her own death, she couldn’t say. Simply she saw how he would miss her. She saw the middle-aged man he would become, struck dumb by the memory of this moment, of her beside him, his mother, asking about his day… She would have done anything to keep him from the hole where there used to be her face turned to his, listening.” This novel presents parenthood and loss, and the sorrow of every parent, contemplating their child’s future without them.