Family ties, family truths

Interview: Sarah Blake, author of The Guest Book

The Guest Book, one of this summer’s big novels, is winning well-deserved praise for author Sarah Blake. This engaging saga of three generations of an upper-crust New York City banking family that summers in Maine is ripe with drama as it spans the years from 1935 to today.

While overflowing with -isms—anti-Semitism, racism, elitism, classism—it also probes a theme familiar to many of us: a special Maine family place that nostalgia brings us back to again and again, be it a camp at the lake, a favorite mountainside campground, or, in this case, an island.

Matriarch Kitty Milton and her clan roll WASPishly through their share of tragedy and change from the pre-World War II years into the new millennium, and their family summer home in Penobscot Bay is their touchstone.

“No matter how old she grew, up here the general order of things never shifted. On and on. Nothing ever changed. Sunlight. Twilight. Drinks on the dock. A cardigan sweater thrown over a chair. …(S)he belonged to this spot,” Kitty’s daughter Joan thinks.

Joan’s professorial daughter, Evie, shares her mother’s nostalgic dedication. But when she and the cousins of her generation are at risk of losing the island, family truths surface that cast her beloved summer retreat and her history in a darker light.

If there’s one takeaway she’d like readers to get from the novel, Blake says, it’s to ponder this question: When you come to see your relation to the collective past, what do you do?

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake
Flatiron Books

Blake, the author of The Postmistress, also set during the World War II era, is working on a novel “that centers around a cell of menopausal women spies charged with protecting a piece of paper dating from Reconstruction that, if revealed, might blow the country open.” She’s 58, lives in Washington D.C. and has visited Maine every year since she was born. We spoke to her about The Guest Book and Maine.

Q: The “promise of Maine” is strong in the story, but is it more a case of getting away from the city than of Maine itself?
A: I think one of the telling elisions that the Milton family makes is that when they say Maine, they really only mean “the Island,” as if the whole state were theirs. The Island is both muse and character in this novel. It is the place that binds and defines the Miltons, the place that tugs on them, that makes them who they are, but also the place they cannot escape; and many of them get caught in that beautiful bind.

Q: In contrast to her cousins, Evie is adamant in her desire to keep the island in the family, even obsessively so. Why is her pull stronger?
A: Evie’s mother Joan has just died, and has asked that Evie bury her ashes on the island under a stone that is marked only, Here. Not her name or the dates of her life. The sorrow and the mystery of that request haunt Evie as she realizes how little she really knew or understood her mother or her grandmother. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, the island becomes a place that Evie feels she must fully know the story of, and so hold on to, before she can bury her mother, letting her go.

Q: Evie is an intelligent 21st century woman—and an expert in patriarchal history—yet she clings to her past, which has more than its fair share of sexism and elitism. How do you reconcile that?
A: Evie has established herself as a feminist historian, intellectually calling out the patriarchy, even though her family history, which is steeped in patriarchal expectations for her behavior, grounds her emotionally. In this, I suppose I don’t see Evie as unusual: The human capacity to compartmentalize is limitless—it allows us to think we see, while seeing only partially, or not at all. We cling to the histories we grew up in because they are familiar, they are the solid upon which we walk, and when we are shown the truth of the ground our family has taken for granted, it asks for a break that is often very difficult to make.

Q: Evie and her cousin can quote verbatim their grandmother’s “oughts”: “A woman ought to keep herself slim, upright, fit. Fat is a sign of ill breeding, of having let yourself go. Liking food too much bespeaks a weak mind, a flaccid spirit, a lack of ambition. One ought to never burden others with one’s sorrows. One ought to keep them to oneself.” Do you have a favorite “ought” from your mother or grandmothers?
A: Can one have a favorite “ought?” Most often I found myself pushing against the oughts, as most of the ones I remember had to do with silence, with keeping quiet: One ought never speak until one is spoken to; One ought be seen and not heard; and then, OK—perhaps my favorite, the one that I questioned most overtly, and the one that the Milton family live by—”Some things are better off left unsaid.” And though I certainly grew up chafing at these oughts, at the same time I learned how to speak up, and speak out in other ways. In some ways, I grew into a writer by watching, and listening to every word unspoken around my family’s dinner tables through the years, my training ground the things left unsaid.

Q: Is there anything else about The Guest Book you’d like readers to know?
A: I was profoundly influenced by the year my family spent in Berlin, two years into the writing of the novel. The year clarified a way to think about America’s relation to its past, but also a way to think of how to dramatize buried memory and its explosive effects on the present. All over the city, and set into the sidewalks as part of the project begun by the artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, brass paving stones are embedded outside the last place a Jewish person lived or worked before they were deported. The words on each stone are simple: Here lived, and then the name, the date of their birth, the date they were taken from that spot; and then the date and the place of their death…The stumble stones make the past physical, concrete, impossible to ignore, literally interrupting the surface of the present. All over the city, the stones attest: something happened, and it happened here, on this spot, calling me to think back through the present spot to the place in the past, asking: who would I have been in the moment the stone holds? Would I have looked? Or looked away?

Looking at the stones, it occurred to me that this might be the way to plot the novel. What if I could show how one moment, one single moment, a moment that was walked over and around—unknown to everyone but the person at the moment’s center—lay buried like an unexploded bomb, silent across time and generations.

Amy Canfield is the deputy editor of Maine Women Magazine and the managing editor of the American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly.

Author profile

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