I must confess, this book is the reason I decided to start this blog. I love Sara Donati’s books fiercely, and I did not feel that a simple and short review on Amazon would do this one justice. I wanted to talk about it. So, here we are.
The Gilded Hour is set in 1883 New York City. The scene is quite a departure from the previous series and Ms. Donati does a fantastic job bringing to life a bustling and crowded metropolis. This book is a continuation of sorts from the Into the Wilderness series, however you do not need to read them to understand this book. If you have not read the Into the Wilderness series, you really should. Why? Because they are damn good books. Many of the characters will be familiar to Ms. Donati devotees, but this is very much Anna and Sophie’s story.
Anna and Sophie are cousins and are both doctors. They live in a large house with their Aunt Quinlan, who has raised them since they were both orphaned as girls. Fans of the Into the Wilderness series will recognize Anna as Birdie’s daughter. Sophie, a free woman of color, is Hannah’s granddaughter. Aunt Quinlan? Say hello to Lily Bonner Ballentyne. Again, you need not have read the previous series to understand the characters and this story. Personally, it was interesting to find out what has become of Nathaniel Bonner’s family though.
I’ve read several reviews criticizing this book for not wrapping up major story lines. That is absurd considering this is the first book in a series. This is only the beginning!
Ms.Donati has never shied away from topics such as race and religion, and she doesn’t in this book either. She handles the topics in 1883 terms, yet I find it very interesting how some of these same topics are still discussed today in our current political climate. She tackles social issues as well in this book. While the Comstock Act and its creator Anthony Comstock are major players in the novel, Ms. Donati also takes on the issue of overcrowding, immigration, and corruption in the police force. Anna finds herself suddenly with four orphaned children who have lost everything. She, along with her family, decide to take the children in. There is only one problem. Two of the children are missing. Anna and Detective Jack Mezzanette search in an effort to reunite the siblings. The result is a picture of a world no child should ever have to see. Ms. Donati certainly did her research for this book and it comes across in the vivid descriptions of the orphanages. They can be chilling at times.
Since Anna and Sophie are both doctors, this book is very heavy on medical terms. I come from a medical background, so I had no trouble keeping up. However, I have heard from a few others they have difficulty following the medical language. Contraceptives and abortions are directly referenced in the novel. I’ll be honest, I do not share the same views as some of the characters in these books, but they are handled expertly and I appreciated the character’s view points. Remember, these women are doctors in a time when the Comstock Act was ruling over the profession. Ms. Donati does a great job demonstrating the very real dangers the Comstock Act created. The choices Sophie and Anna are forced to make are ones I am not sure that I could have made myself.
It seems like there is a lot jammed into this book. There is, but I haven’t even mentioned the love story yet. Or stories, I should say. One character I particularly loved was Cap Verhoeven, an attorney from a prominent family who is childhood friends with Anna and Sophie. Cap suffers from tuberculosis. His condition causes him to withdraw from most of the people in his life. However, he and Sophie are madly in love. She has refused him on several occasions believing that his very wealthy family would object to him marrying a free woman of color (she is right by the way). After a masterful manipulation on Cap’s part, Sophie finally agrees to marry him. I say manipulation because that is exactly what it is and Sophie knows it. With Cap’s time drawing to a close, she decides to not care and marry the man she loves. It is beautiful and painful. A wonderful promise knowing a goodbye will soon follow. I shed a few tears. The wedding day is quite the event, with Sophie being called in by the police for possibly violating the Comstock Act. Luckily, her husband is a lawyer.
Let’s not forget Anna. She forms and attachment to Detective Jack Mezzanotte, an Italian with a large and robust family. Anna can come across as frosty at times, but the losses she has had in her life make the very understandable. Jack is a wonderful foil for her and the path of their romance is lovely to watch. Anna does take up a considerable part of this book, so you get to see it all and in detail. It is through Anna’s eyes that we see the world surrounding these characters. She is strong woman, but sometimes I think she forgets that. She’s locked herself away and Jack is the one who finally gives her hope, I think.
One part of this book really bothered me and it was regarding Aunt Quinlan. I know her character from the previous series, and I confess she was one of my least favorites. However, she seemed to be a completely different person in this novel. It bothered me the entire way through until a scene at the dinner table between Margaret and Aunt Quinlan. Margaret is a decent enough character, but she can be uppity and Aunt Quinlan finally lashes out at her with a sharp remark. It was nasty and poorly timed and all I could think was, There you are Lily. Finally. Then it dawned on me. Yes, this is Lily. But this is 94-year-old Lily. She’s lost her husband and four of her daughters. Most of her grandsons died in the Civil War. She has lost brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins and all manner of friends. Lily cannot paint anymore because of arthritis. When I really thought about it, I choked up. This woman has endured more loss than I can even begin to imagine. It is Anna who truly demonstrates this by going through each of the paintings in the house (all done by Aunt Quinlan) and explaining to Jack who they are. And how they died. At one point she gestures to five framed pictures. All of them are men who went away to the Civil War. “Not one of them came back,” she says. “Not one.” An infinite amount of grief in less than ten words. The writing here was outstanding. The emotion behind it was heartbreaking. Suddenly, I knew exactly where Lily had gone.
First thoughts after finishing the book:
I wonder what names Many Doves would have given to Cap, Jack, Anna, and Sophie. Then I felt guilty, because this story is supposed to be about Anna and Sophie so I really shouldn’t be yearning for old characters. Or should I? Ms. Donati created a world in the Into the Wilderness series that I absolutely adored. I took those characters into my heart and to see their legacy in The Gilded Hour was bittersweet. Anna and Sophie are much more than a legacy though. They are carving their own path and I’m anxious to see where they go from here.
Ms. Donati knows how to create a scene and backdrop. She is excellent at addressing historical issues that are still relevant today in an intelligent manner. You can still like characters and not necessarily agree with their every decision. That seems like common sense, but sometimes I can get caught up and I need to be reminded. I’m not thoroughly attached to Anna and Sophie yet, but this is only the beginning of their story. I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the series.
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