There’s a stunning scene toward the beginning of Sarah Blake’s new novel, “The Guest Book,” that follows a wealthy young mother gliding around New York and then to her elegant mansion in a charmingly choreographed dance of delight that ends with her 5-year-old son falling from a window to his death.
Such a tragedy might shatter other families, but the Miltons are not other families. Ogden and Kitty Milton are the union of America’s bluest bloodlines, aristocrats who have provided a model of decorum to a grateful nation since they arrived on the Mayflower. (“Always remember you are a Milton,” a young scion is advised. “Not a Lowell.”) Ogden guides the family’s Wall Street firm with wisdom and discretion, just as Kitty manages their home.
As soon as they bury their son, everyone agrees that it’s “best not to mention it. Best not to dwell on it. . . . Some things were better off left unsaid.”
This is very much a novel about what is left unsaid, which is ironic considering that so much is said — hundreds and hundreds of pages of repressed grief and strained smiles. Despite its dramatic opening, the bulk of the story is far more immersive than propulsive. These are people who imagine their boutique blend of gold and goodness can protect them from the vicissitudes of life, even as their dynasty dissipates with each passing generation. “The Guest Book” offers an exhaustive study of Brahmin pain, the suffering stoically endured by that class of people who ask each other, “Where do you summer?” It’s part of a long, distinguished line of beautiful costume dramas that allow us good liberals to luxuriate in the silken folds of privilege while reassuring ourselves that such privilege is doomed.
Most of the story takes place on the Miltons’ vacation island off the coast of Maine. A gorgeous “cottage” — without a single comfortable chair — provides them an annual refuge from the dreadful heat of New York City. Ogden buys the island in the 1930s, during what common people call the Depression. For the Miltons and their friends, the island is an oasis of casual refinement whose rituals are quickly established by Kitty and then ferociously enforced for decades: The lobster picnic is always eaten there. When someone dares to move a ceramic cow figurine from the kitchen window, it’s noted with concern. The copper vase in the dining room must be filled with bayberry flowers, not lilacs. We’re not barbarians!
This rare species of gilded immutability is easy to mock, but it’s difficult to locate the author’s sympathies. Blake, who published a best-selling novel called “The Postmistress” in 2010, seems to waver between satirizing these people and romanticizing their opulence. And even as the novel mourns the decay of the Miltons’ dynasty, the story strains to demonstrate that America’s aristocracy arose from systemic corruption and cruelty — a revelation that will surely shock some Muffy or Biff in Darien, Conn.
The climactic scene of “The Guest Book” is a disastrous party described in such granular detail that it seems to take place in real time, but it’s mesmerizing rather than tedious because Blake can write with the dramatic heft of Arthur Miller. Kitty, in particular, is a truly fascinating woman: a matriarch of infinite charm and repulsive prejudices. In extremis, her adult children say such fervent things as: “This place is a pile of lies. If we are not good or right, we are wrong.” Out of context, their pronouncements sound melodramatic, but during this momentous evening on the island, the Miltons’ desperate efforts to articulate what they want and fear flow powerfully toward a cascade of loss. Good manners will not absolve these polite people of their crimes. All their shameful secrets will be exposed, and their magnanimity deconstructed.
But unfortunately, this older story about the Miltons is interlaced with chapters set several decades later when Ogden and Kitty’s adult grandchildren can no longer afford to keep the island retreat. One of their descendants is Evie, a feminist historian who has dedicated her career to reclaiming forgotten moments of domestic life. Discovering what has been hidden is, of course, counter to the Miltons’ fundamental principle. Evie rightly suspects crucial events have been excised from her family’s memory, and so she throws herself into finding clues in Kitty’s guest book, a relative’s dying wish or a stranger’s off-handed remark. Alas, her detective work is suspense-free for us because in alternate chapters we’re immersed in those long-ago events that Evie can never know firsthand. Worse, far too many pages are devoted to exploring the depth of Evie’s inconsolable despair at losing ownership of the Maine retreat. This priceless piece of real estate is so central to her identity that I didn’t so much pity her as feel embarrassed for her. Don’t worry, Evie. Lots of us somehow manage to trudge on through life without owning an island resort.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that “The Guest Book” feels as conflicted about its values as several generations of Miltons do — or maybe I’m just trying to stabilize my feelings toward this frustrating novel. There’s no denying that Blake writes powerfully about these people. The early parts are flawlessly decorated with period detail and freighted with all the weightiest subjects of the era, including the Holocaust, civil rights and freedom of expression. Indeed, “The Guest Book” is monumental in a way that few novels dare attempt. But is the loss of a $3.5 million vacation home a relevant subject for a great American novel at this moment? Or does the whole lyrical enterprise feel overwrought, even precious?
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Sarah Blake
Flatiron. 496 pp. $27.99