I received a copy of this book from Netgalley/the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I love reading novels set in the 19th century. I was not familiar with Anita Hemmings, the first African American woman to graduate from Vassar College, and I was intrigued by the premise of Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years.
Anita Hemmings is considered to be one of the great beauties of the class of 1897 at Vassar. She seems to have it all: she is a talented singer, and a gifted scholar. But Anita is hiding a terrible secret: her skin is light enough to pass as white, but she is actually a black woman. At the end of the 19th century, there are very few colleges that admit black women, and Vassar is not one of them. If anyone found out the truth about Anita, it would ruin her.
The Gilded Years starts at the beginning of Anita’s senior year. She has a new roommate- Lottie Taylor, a vivacious girl from one of New York City’s wealthiest families. Anita has always stayed on the periphery of Vassar’s social scene; it is the easier to keep her secret if she keeps interactions to a minimum. This proves to be difficult once Lottie comes into her life. Anita enjoys spending time at the center of attention, and even meets a handsome Harvard man. But she always feels a sense of unease about everything; there is always the fear that her secret will be revealed, and everything that she spent years working for would be taken away from her.
This was a wonderful book. Karin Tanabe is a gifted writer. She weaves together a vivid portrait of college life at the fin de siècle. It is easy to empathize with Anita, who finds herself in a terrible position: she loves the gilded life that Lottie introduces her to, but staying in it would mean giving up her family. Likewise, revealing the truth about herself would lead being ostracized, and likely expelled.
I would absolutely recommend The Gilded Years to fans of historical fiction, and although it has not marketed as such, I think this book would also appeal to young adult fans of historical fiction as well. I am pleased to have discovered Karin Tanabe, and am looking forward to reading her other books.