A dense, sprawling multigenerational novel, “The Guest Book” peels back the veneer of a venerable American family. The Miltons are WASPish to the core, with a Milton in the first class at Harvard in 1642 – and in every class since. Wealth defines them, even in hard times. They are, as one character describes them, “one of those families who used to run the world” but are now trapped in their own collective identity, an identity that is zealously guarded. The hidden tragic secrets that turn out to define them lay at the heart of the book.

Cover courtesy of Flatiron Books

The grand tapestry that glosses over everything that is troublesome in the family and in the world frays as the novel progresses. Some characters are quite content with how things are. Others aren’t. “The Guest Book” spans the 20th century and focuses on three generations of Miltons. Though Ogden Milton is the patriarch, his wife, Katherine, or Kitty, rules with an iron hand.

The story opens early in their marriage when Neddy, at 5 the oldest of their three children, falls to his death from a window that Kitty had opened in their New York City apartment. Ogden is in Germany on business. Kitty is devastated. The child’s death punctures the myth of privilege for her. But Ogden and Kitty are locked within the family’s unspoken pledge to secrecy regarding the boy’s death. When Ogden returns for the funeral, he can’t even ask his wife how his son died. At the funeral, Kitty “understood that if she gave in to the tears in front of others, there would be no way back. Her father was right. There should be no waterworks.”

The novel moves fluidly between generations, often within the same chapter. No guideposts steer the reader through the numerous shifts in point-of-view. Blake seems to be advising readers to pay attention. The story is set in New York City and Crockett Island, just off Vinalhaven, Maine. Ogden bought the island knowing that it would distinguish him among his moneyed peers. When they first visit the island in 1935, Ogden and Kitty are instantly smitten, and they buy it impulsively in the wake of Neddy’s death. ”We’ll buy this island and begin. Again,” Ogden says. He savors the joy of beating out Charles Lindbergh in the purchase. When a New York friend asks him what he intends to do with the place, Ogden snaps, “Own it.”

Crockett Island becomes the family summer compound and the gathering place for other golden names in the social registry. Excepting Neddy’s death, the dramatic action of the novel is sparked by untruths, half truths and secrets, all set on the island. Blake scrapes back the gilding of the Miltons, exposing fault lines in the family, but also in the 20th century. Racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism give the book much of its heart-crushing pathos.

Two outsiders become central prisms for illuminating the fault lines. Reg Pauling, a photographer, is Chicago born, a Harvard graduate and black. The brilliant, driven Len Levy, who is Jewish, has recently been hired by Ogden to advise him on new ventures at the family bank he runs. Pauling and Levy are childhood friends. Both are free thinkers. Though neither falls spell to the Milton family charm, Pauling becomes friends with Moss, Ogden and Kitty’s second born, while Levy falls in love with Joan, their third born.

Moss Milton is the family’s gregarious charmer. He violates the etiquette of the well-born when he invites Pauling and Levy to the island for the big summer party. Kitty tells them to leave. Banishment based on race and religion comes easily to Kitty. Years before when Elsa Hoffman, a friend of Ogden’s, had shown up unannounced with her young son to beg Ogden and Kitty to take him in, to protect him from anti-Semitism and the horror of the expanding war in Europe, Kitty retorted, “There is no war,” and sent them away, too.

Blake grew up going to an island her family owned in Maine, which served as inspiration for “The Guest House.” In this, her third novel, she has written a magnificent, big feast of a book. Richly plotted and powerfully written, “The Guest Book” also offers meaty themes and strong characters. It is a story that readers will welcome losing themselves in.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by “Shelf Unbound” and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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