Saturday, February 6, 2016
Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
Author: Sara Donati
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Content Alert: violence, sexual violence, lots of talking about sex (but not a lot of sex itself)
When Dr. Anna Savard gets called from her New York home to vaccinate Italian orphans one morning in 1883, she can't foresee the many ways her life will change as a result of that day. First, she meets Rosa and her brothers and sisters, and Anna promises them that she will try to make sure they aren't separated. Then she meets Jack, a detective with the New York Police Department. While the young family and Jack enrich Anna's personal life, her professional life, along with that of her cousin, Dr. Sophie Savard, is under attack due to their involvement with a young mother who had been under their care and died after receiving an abortion. Donati uses this story to highlight the lack of family planning options available to women at this time, and to the evils of the Comstock laws, a series of anti-vice laws. Sophie, who is of mixed-race, also figures prominently in the book, especially as she prepares to marry her childhood love, the scion of a wealthy New York family, and travel to Switzerland with him so he can receive treatment for tuberculosis.
Some of my very favorite books ever (Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni) have taken place in the same NYC Donati uses as her setting. It's a place of swishing skirts, menacing shadows, wealth, poverty, and danger. Typically, I am also a huge fan of books with medical subjects, and of books that really get into a world I'm interested in. Readers of The Gilded Hour know about everything from the style of dress that was popular at the time, to home decorating trends, to what foods were popular in Italian immigrant families, to birth control methods. I loved that aspect of the book, as well as the character development-- Jack and Anna's relationship was so smart and measured and romantic, I wanted to live in it. In the second half of the book, Donati introduces the idea of a serial murderer performing abortions in a way that will kill the women who seek them, and while this story was engrossing, the fact that this part of the narrative (along with several others) doesn't have a clear resolution, weakens the reading experience for me, even though I knew from the outset that this was going to be the first book of a series. At 700+ pages, at least tie up the murder mystery, please.
I'm now interested in Donati's Wilderness books. The covers looks SO much like historical romance novels, which makes me a little less interested in reading them than if they were historical novels with romantic subplots, which is how I would characterize The Gilded Hour.