The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe is the story of one young woman who risks everything to earn a college degree—but the secret she hides could be her undoing. Read my full review.
The Gilded Years Book Synopsis
Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country’s most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, the scion of one of New York’s most prominent families.
Though Anita has kept herself at a distance from her classmates, Lottie’s sphere of influence is inescapable, her energy irresistible, and the two become fast friends. Pulled into her elite world, Anita learns what it’s like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman—the person everyone believes her to be—and even finds herself in a heady romance with a moneyed Harvard student. It’s only when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s brother, Frederick, whose skin is almost as light as his sister’s, that the situation becomes particularly perilous. And as Anita’s college graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret.
Set against the vibrant backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era when old money traditions collided with modern ideas, Tanabe has written an unputdownable and emotionally compelling story of hope, sacrifice, and betrayal—and a gripping account of how one woman dared to risk everything for the chance at a better life.
(Atria Books, Simon & Schuster, 2016)
Genre: Historical, Drama, Romance
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While the synopsis immediately grabbed my attention, Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years did not live up to my expectations. I should point out though that my response sits in contrast to the wave of adoration this title is receiving on Goodreads (4.22/5 Stars, at the time of writing)
The key for me is separating the courageous and inspiring real-life exploits of Anita Hemmings from the merits of this fictionalized account.
Most successful was Tanabe’s evocation of time and place, particularly the increasing decadence of the lives of the wealthy during the pre-Gatsby years. The Vassar College campus, a central character in and of itself, was beautifully depicted by Vassar graduate Tanabe. In comparison several other characters, while undoubtedly colourful, lacked the depth and credible layering I needed to emotionally engage with them. This may have been a symptom of Tanabe’s predominant use of a chronological third-person limited narrative viewpoint, which I felt limited her scope to build suspense.
I always read Afterwords, finding more often than not they add to the reading experience. However, Tanabe’s disclosure of the instances where her fiction diverged from fact only solidified niggles I’d already had about characters’ actions in this novel’s fleeting conclusion.
Despite gaps between expectation and delivery, in writing The Gilded Years it is clear that Karin Tanabe’s desire was to remind us of the fortitude and personal sacrifices of pioneering African-American women such as Anita Hemmings and their families. Readers are left in no doubt of that, and for that I have great admiration.
BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 2.5 / 5 ; Overall 2.75
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About the Author, Karin Tanabe
Karin Tanabe is the author of the novels The List and The Price of Inheritance, and now The Gilded Years. A graduate of Vassar College and a former Politico reporter and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, her work has also appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer and in the anthology Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter. Check out Karin’s official website.
* My receiving a copy of The Gilded Years from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.