Expected publication: June 7th 2016 by Washington Square Press
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.
(Seriously, A+ job on the blurb, Karin's editor!)
Because this is a beautiful, heartbreaking tale and I can only hope that all of you will take my advice and read it.
Things that worked:
It's never easy to fictionalize a real-life person, but I think that Tanabe does a commendable job here.
We're introduced to an Anita that's optimistic and highly intelligent, but obviously lives a half-life that is often spent wondering how to cover up her background, and whether today is the day she will be discovered. It's an exhausting balance between her home life and her Vassar life, and Tanabe brilliantly shows just what a calculated, tight-rope balance it can be.
Readers will likely the same anxiety that Anita feels when she wonders if she's accidentally slipped up, and also genuine empathetic frustration when Anita realizes that no matter how much she struggles, there is still inequality in the world that she resides in. She is different, and there is no way she can fully pull off her passing, unless she were to give up elements of her life. Consequently, there is a certain ease in being with people who know the truth about her, and readers will both cringe and cheer her on, as she moves higher and higher in Lottie's glittering, elite world.
And on that note...
On friendships and "friendships"
One of the most notable parts of The Gilded Years is how deeply Anita's time at Vassar and at home is defined by her friendships with various people in her life.
While we can absolutely understand why Anita acquiesce to Lottie's friendship - especially with everything Lottie represents - Tanabe also skillfully shows just how frustrating the friendship can be to everyone else. Readers can absolutely understand why Anita's brother cautions her about the deepening friendship, and just how troubling (though understandable) it is when Anita ignores his requests.
The friendship actually serves as a broader metaphor for the challenges and changes of the gilded age; and Tanabe draws nice parallels between both the burgeoning growth and youth of the bright young things of Anita's age, but also reminds that regardless of how progressive an age may be, some things will remain iron steadfast, including racism. It's sad when Anita doesn't realize that - particularly as the reader knows how the story will end - but it's also a reminder of the strength she must have had, to live in such a convoluted, glittering world.
All of this is a stark contrast to the friendships that Anita has with previous classmates, including classmates who chose not to pass and still toughed it out at Seven Sister schools. While I can't remotely imagine what Anita's friends would have gone through, it's so humbling reading about their quiet determination to live their lives and prove themselves, with the understanding that it's an uphill battle.
I've read many a book with unrequited/unresolved relationships before, but Anita's romance genuinely broke my heart.
Without giving too many spoilers away, Tanabe crafts Anita's relationship with Porter Hamilton in a way that shows that this is a relationship that can provide everything that she could possibly want, but it comes at a cost that will leave her the loser, regardless.
It's a doomed romance, but Tanabe will have readers wishing beyond hope that everything can work out for Anita's happy ending, and also feeling a bit appeased that Porter sees Anita as she deserves to be seen - without her background as a detractor.
Though we know how the book will end; Tanabe does a nice job of showing that it's an ending that still contains hope. Anita is able to move on with her life - as she did in real life - and we also see that things do continue to evolve and change, when we're given a look at her family life in the future.
It's a hopeful ending, and will leave you feeling lucky that you've witnessed Anita's journey.
Things that didn't work:
*Mild spoilers ahead*
Tanabe even makes it a point of concluding the book with a look forward into the rest of Anita's life, which I found beautifully powerful.
She shows us how history can change, yet stay very much the same. It's a sobering, yet much-needed reminder of how far we've come when it comes to a society that lets a woman shine regardless of their background, but also a reminder of how relevant Anita's story continues to be.
I finished The Gilded Years with a pang in my heart - not because of the book, which was excellent - but because I had become so acquainted with Anita Hemmings through Karin Tanabe's carefully structured plotting, I felt her struggles and eventual losses at Vassar as acutely as if they were my own. I was so reluctant to leave Anita's world, I immediately looked up articles about her after finishing the book.
All in all, this isn't just a story about a young woman's struggles with passing, though it is very much that. This is also a beautifully imagined reminder of not only the societal and racial challenges that continues to dominate our society, but also a reminder of the struggles that women have had to face, to earn their place in the world.
This is the type of book that you won't forget anytime soon, and I certainly won't. Highly recommend, full stop.