The Guest Book spans 3 generations, weaving past and present to tell the story of the Milton’s, an affluent family who reeks of white privilege. Kitty and Ogden Milton buy an island in Maine at the tail end of the depression, when the world is in their second world war. Their summer home is the center to all of their lives. The home that weaves the family and friends together. They are a family of privilege, a family who claims tolerance yet their views on Jews and Blacks are typically racist.
The story started off slow for me, it’s a substantial book for sure. But once I broke the midway point, it picked up, and I found myself not wanting to put it down.
In our newest generation of Milton’s, the island and the house that sits on it has become too much to upkeep. It would be so much easier to sell it off, be done with it and the painful memories that are intereceded with the good ones of the past. Yet not everyone wants to get rid of it, and so we watch their struggles to hold onto the past, a past that is riddled with questions. Evie is swept up in the fond memories while her husband wants her to recognize the heart of who her family was and how the island was acquired. Why was Ogden sitting with those German officers in that photo? He wants her to let the island go in recognition of her families mistakes. While Evie is a step up from her parents and grandparents racism, even marrying a Jewish man, she doesn’t see the privilege her family has. Her husband is saying look at this picture, look at who your family was, and she doesn’t want to. She wants to look at the island with rose colored glasses. Which begs the question, for how many generations does a family atone for the previous mistakes? (my answer is until they get it right.)
Over time through the generations, the level of their evident racism is slowly erased. Kitty turning down saving a Jewish boy whose mother pleaded with Kitty to keep him, their treatment of Reg, Moss’s black friend who for some bizarre reason, accepted his invitation to the island. Reg sees through their thinly veiled politeness for the racism underneath. He sees it in how they treat his friend Len, a Jewish man who came along with him, who also works for Ogden, and who is in love with Joan. Joan herself believes because she has “fits” (seizures), she’s unfit for marriage, and of course, her family encourages that ideal. Even if she wanted to marry Len, that wouldn’t do, because he’s Jewish. Moss is gay though he isn’t open about it because look at his family.
And what of the picture of Milton sitting with German officers? We go back to the fact they were able to afford an island at a time where the world was in its second great war and people were still recovering from the great depression. That island was paid for by Nazi money of course.
I do enjoy stories that alternate viewpoints and weave together the past and present, sometimes it was hard to follow because of the tradition of carrying down female names. But it wasn’t so much so that you couldn’t figure it out with some more reading. I think we were supposed to respect the Milton’s because they recognized their prejudices, especially when we learn of Kitty’s regret in not saving that boy when she could have. But a case of too little too late is greatly too little when it came to Hitler’s atrocities. The Guest Book is well-written, it’s introspective, and speaks of the great divide in America past and present.