What’s in a Name?

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake. 

The Guest Book is as much a family saga as it is a love story.  But what will perhaps carry this book through the ages is that it speaks to the heart of American society and privilege.  Kitty and Ogden Milton have power and prestige.  They are considered American royalty. Their legacy is not simply one of wealth but of morals and values as well.

Let’s first consider the guest book as an historical record.  Evelyn Milton is a history professor whose life’s work examines the role of the silent women in history.  She beseeches her students to consider the historical record.  Who gets to tell the story?  What part of history is actual fact?  How much of the story is missing?  One must not just consider different perspectives but acknowledge that facts, details, entire lives may have been erased.  In the end how does one verify the truth in what has been documented? 

More importantly, The Guest Book shows the legacy of prejudice and how our abuses of power and privilege are rooted in our value systems.  Kitty is Queen Bee of the Milton clan.  She has instilled in her children a list of “Ought Tos” and “Ought Nots” that will allow them to engage in polite society. It is these rules that also perpetuate the oppression of the disenfranchised.

I think that it is key that Reg Pauling’s name never appeared in the guest book even though he played a critical role on the night of the party.  In his own life he was quite successful as a journalist for The Village Voice.  He was well educated.  He lived a life worth the telling, a life worth being seen.  Yet, ala Ralph Ellison he is delegated to being “The Invisible Man”.  Kitty opens herself up to him because he seems so unassuming.   Len Levy, in contrast, is a man whose presence looms large.  He is ambitious, earnest in his speech and radiates confidence.  Kitty sees parallels between Levy and her husband Ogden.  For Ogden she sees these qualities as the source of his strength but for Len it is off putting.  As a Jew he was not supposed to take up that type of space.  He was not supposed to fill up a room with his presence.  So although Len Levy’s name does appear in the guest book it is not by Kitty’s offering but by Evie’s sleight of hand as she tries to hide her affair.  Levy gets acknowledged in the book but the feeling is that his name does not belong there.  Len does not belong to that society even though he has earned that right for himself.  Sarah Blake does a fine job exploring how nuanced power plays and discrimination can be within American society.

From the blurb: “An unforgettable love story, a novel about past mistakes and betrayals that ripple throughout generations, The Guest Book examines not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America. It is a literary triumph.”