The Barnes & Noble Book Club selection for May, Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book, opens in 1935 with the story of Ogden Milton, the head of a wealthy and privileged American family at the height of its power. When tragedy strikes, Ogden purchases an island in Maine in an attempt to help his wife Kitty overcome unspeakable loss. It quickly becomes a place of central importance to the family, one that bears witness over the years as three generations of Miltons struggle through the decline of their social status and the erosion of their family fortune. A lush novel, filled with secrets that are slowly revealed as Blake moves back and forth through time, The Guest Book is filled with incisive observations about wealth, systemic racism, and the lengths a family will go to in order to conceal the dark and unpleasant truths behind its legacy. Once you’ve read The Guest Book and discussed it at your local B&N Book Club meeting on June 11th at 7pm, you may find yourself adrift, looking for your next great read and wondering what could possibly follow in the footsteps of this haunting and evocative novel. That’s where we come in. Here are twelve books to read once you’ve (regretfully) finished The Guest Book.
The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake
If you loved The Guest Book, your next stop is Blake’s intricate, thought-provoking 2011 novel The Postmistress. Set during World War II, the story is anchored by three very different women—Iris, the straitlaced postmistress of the Cape Cod town of Franklin; Emma, the young, lonely wife of newly-arrived doctor Will; and Frankie, a self-reliant journalist covering the Blitz in London. Blake follows the lives of these women as Will, crushed by a tragic mistake, heads to London to make himself useful and meets Frankie, leaving a very pregnant Emma behind to wonder about his fate. All the threads come together when Iris, normally a fierce defender of the sanctity of the postal system, confiscates a letter, setting events in motion she can’t possibly predict.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
If your sweet spot in The Guest Book was the inexorable ripple-effect of unintended consequences that come from even the smallest of choices, imagine a book about a girl who experiences all the alternate lives she might have led. In 1910, Ursula Todd is stillborn—and then she is born again, managing to live just a little longer before dying. And then she is born again—and again, each time retaining vague hints about her previous existence, hints she can use to avoid tragedy and to potentially change the course of human history. Atkinson’s novel is a story about how our decisions affect both our own lives and those of everyone around us, and she makes the burdensome secrets of the past feel as real and consequential as Blake does. As an added bonus, the story of the Todd family is continued in Atkinson’s book A God in Ruins, which tells the story of Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy.
The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott
McDermott is a National Book Award recipient for Charming Billy and a multiple Pulitzer Prize finalist. Set in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s, this novel tells the story of a family impacted by terrible, tragic decisions that reverberate throughout their lives. Tended to by an elderly nun after her husband commits suicide, a young widowed mother and her newborn baby are brought into the fold of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. In a time and place that was unforgiving at best toward families overcoming scandal, the young mother discovers that the worst moment of her life is best not mentioned. The consequences of her husband’s act will affect generations to come, but so will the loving friendships she makes with the nuns’ help.
Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From the Goon Squad, and fans of Blake’s novels will enjoy this evocative period novel, which features a less-experimental but just as moving story set in New York City during the Depression and World War II. Manhattan Beach follows the struggles of Anna Kerrigan, first as an adolescent idealizing her beleaguered father, and later at 19, after his disappearance, when Anna is charged with supporting her sister and mother by working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as its sole female diver. A chance encounter with her father’s mobster boss begins to shed light on the truth about Anna’s dad, landing squarely on similar themes to The Guest Book: how the actions of our loved ones can change our lives with unintended consequences. You may want to have tissues on hand for this beautiful, detail-rich novel.
The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving
This charming, eccentric novel has all the sprawling and strange family history a fan of The Guest Book could want, telling the story of Win and Mary Berry and their five children (and dog, Sorrow) as Win struggles to attain the sort of great life he always assumed he’d lead. A teacher at his second-rate alma mater in New Hampshire, Win buys the girls’ school when it closes and transforms it into the doomed Hotel New Hampshire, then later uproots the family for Vienna to run a hotel owned by a near-magical figure from Win and Mary’s past. There’s tragic death, tragic love, and dark comedy to spare; if you loved the epic family entanglements in The Guest Book, this one is a must-read.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
One of the great pleasures of a novel like The Guest Book is the complicated trips through time that give you glimpses of a family’s grand story as it slowly coalesces into clarity. Franzen is a modern master of the ambitious family saga, and this novel is a family study told through layered flashbacks and various voices and points of view, tracing the slow, graceful arc into disappointment of the Berglund children as they realize the idyllic life promised by their parents’ own seemingly ideal lives isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be—nor is the freedom they possess to make their own choices and their own mistakes. As in The Guest Book, the various pieces of the Berglund’s story slowly come together into a whole, revealing secrets and illuminating the patterns they find themselves trapped in, the power of this story builds.
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
Patchett drew on her own life story to craft this memorable tale of the aftermath of a drunken, stolen kiss that detonates two marriages. In the wake of the divorces that follow, a new relationship is forged, one that will impact the children of those broken marriages for decades to come. Anchored by a core mystery, Patchett follows the fates of Bert and Teresa’s children as they’re brought together by their parents’ affair and second marriage, examining their relationships with each other, and observing the influence of their childhood experiences on their adult lives, which are marked by dysfunction and unexpected tragedy. If you were on the edge of your seat flipping pages to find out the secrets at the center of The Guest Book, you’re going to love Commonwealth.
The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo
Lombardo’s debut novel slots perfectly into a Blake-inspired reading list, following the Sorenson family—David and Marilyn and their daughters Violet, Wendy, Liza, and Grace—from their 1970s childhoods to their 2017 crises. Though their parents’ marriage was a seemingly ideal pairing of passion and affection, the daughters struggle miserably in their own relationships, and find that their adult lives are nothing like what they expected. The sisters uncover secrets about each other, meddle in each other’s lives, and continue to learn how to live on a near daily basis, while Lombardo teases out the slightly-less-than-perfect truth about their parents’ union. The end result is a delightful exploration of family that will reverberate deeply with readers.
Grange House, by Sarah Blake
Fans of The Guest Book will be delighted to discover that Blake’s debut novel explores many of the same themes of family secrets, with the added pleasures of a Victorian gothic twist and a shivery ghost story. Set in Maine in the summer of 1896, the titular house was once the grand home of the Grange family, but now only spinster Miss Nell Grange remains, living simply while a small staff runs the estate as a hotel. A young girl named Maisie Thomas spends every summer there with her family, and becomes obsessed with Nell, an author, who inspires her to dream of writing a book. Maisie’s relationship with Nell prompts the old woman to offer ominous hints about past events, and Maisie loses herself in the old woman’s story as her own life becomes less and less real. All the threads come together in a gripping, emotionally powerful ending.
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
Maybe what really drew you into The Guest Book was the sense of a lost and tarnished family legacy—which makes this frightening tale an ideal chaser. Set in a crumbling estate in Warwickshire after World War II, this novel combines classic Gothic ingredients—a once-great house gone to seed, a family in dire straits, inexplicable illnesses, haunting spirits, encroaching madness—into a modern, meaty, character-driven story. The dwindling Ayers family struggles to survive in the dilapidated, crumbling family estate known as Hundreds Hall as the world outside, transformed by war and technology, becomes less and less familiar. Waters tells the story from the point of view of a brilliant doctor from humble roots, who has fond memories of Hundreds Hall from his childhood, which makes his determination to explain everything with science and logic all the more unsettling.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins
If you want more of the secrets, the mysteries, and the sense of dread inspired by having an incomplete picture of what really happened found in The Guest Book, look no further. Set in the early 19th century, this story follows Frannie, a slave owned by John Langton, who is given to George Benham in London. Benham has Frannie spy on his wife, Meg, whom he suspects of scandal, but Frannie and Meg become lovers. When George and Meg are found murdered, Frannie is arrested—but claims she cannot remember the events leading up to their deaths. This novel combines all the pleasures of a historical romance and a murder mystery, made all the more complex and tragic by Frannie’s status as a slave.
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
Perry’s novel, set in 19th century England, focuses on Cora Seaborne, an intelligent and restless woman pushed into a society marriage at the age of 19. When her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with her young son and his nanny, Martha, Cora is glad to be free again. She travels to the country to enjoy freedom and privacy, and finds herself drawn to a local legend about a magical serpent, blamed for a recent death. A naturalist, Cora decides she will prove superstition false and perhaps discover a new species, and meets William Ransome, the local vicar, who seeks to do the same for different reasons. Their relationship is at the heart of this dark, magical story of love, mystery, and seeming opposites who can’t seem to resist each other. If you loved Blake’s nuanced female characters, Cora Seaborne might be your next favorite fictional heroine.
What readalikes would you recommend to readers who loved The Guest Book?