The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe / My rating: ★★★☆☆
One sentence summary: At the end of the 19th century, Anita Hemmings, the first black student at Vassar College in New York, passes as a white student in order to attend.
“They don’t know you’re there, but we know. That is the most important part. You’re so clever, so worthy; it would have been the greatest shame of your life if you never tried.”
Genre: Historical fiction
Plot: While the premise was extremely promising, I found the novel to be a little dry. I didn’t mind reading it while I was reading it, but once I put it down, I didn’t bend over backwards to pick it back up. The story is interesting, but I didn’t feel that every scene was necessary and some chapters were a bit frivolous, and I’d find myself skimming as I grew to recognize what wouldn’t be important. That, and there was always a heightened sense of expectation, many times of danger, throughout the book that kept being dashed, and it made the story fall flat at times. Still, it wasn’t a bad read, and it did pick up at the end. I just felt that a premise like this could have been done much, much better.
Characters: I found our leading girl Anita to be rather dry, and while I understand she needed the elements of meekness and modesty to keep her secret hidden, I didn’t always find myself particularly interested in her. The depth of the friendships between the Vassar girls that Tanabe tried to translate through the text didn’t feel very full or fleshed out to me. Anita’s roommate Lottie’s character was intriguing, but a lot of times I tired of her. Most of the time she was the same type of rich, spoiled upper class girl I’d read in other books, and I had been hoping I’d be proven wrong by some twist that never came. Porter, Anita’s love interest, had no depth, and because of that I couldn’t particularly bring myself to care about their relationship, or feel as if it was something Anita should risk her secret for. I did like Frederick, Anita’s younger brother at MIT, a lot. Bessie, Anita’s best friend, was probably my favorite character. They seemed the most real to me, the most interesting, I always felt more engaged in the story when Anita was interacting with them.
Writing: The words could be pretty, but mostly the writing felt dry and stiff and wordy, and I’d begin to skim if a scene got overly descriptive. The dialogue I found to be a bit overloaded with information at times, like a casual conversation between characters would suddenly become a history lesson for the reader. I’ve never read Tanabe’s writing before, so I don’t know if this is her usual style, but it felt as if she was trying to emulate the writing style of books written during the 19th century, which isn’t a bad thing, if that is what she was going for.
Was I satisfied? It was a good read, but my overall thought for this book is “it could have been done better.”