REVIEW: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

In brief: The story of Anita Hemmings, the first African-American student to attend Vassar College. Will her senior year roommate find out that Anita has been passing as white for the last three years?

The good: Strong questions on race and education.

The not-so-good: The story took some time to build past a college story.

Why I chose it: Has been on my list for years – thanks to Simon & Schuster for the copy.

Year: 2016

Pages: 382

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Setting: USA

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Gilded Years has been on my to read list for years, but given that there is soon to be a movie (starring Zendaya), what better time to read it but now? I think the story will make a fantastic movie as there are some moments, good and bad, that will look spectacular on film. But the novel is also a fictionalised version of a true story, that of Anita Hemmings.

Anita has always wanted to get an education and attend Vassar. Her parents are also keen for her and her siblings to learn as much as they can, as being African-American in the late 1800s is very limiting even in the northern states of America. For Anita, attending Vassar means that she needs to lie about her race. She can never invite her parents to her graduation, and she must keep her brother at arm’s length. For Anita’s first three years at Vassar, she has kept her head down and stayed at a distance. But in her final year, new friendships and a romance means that she comes perilously close to her secret being revealed. Her new, incredibly rich roommate Lottie Taylor is fascinated by Anita and even more so by her brother Frederick. Anita also finds an admirer in Porter Hamilton, which her brother expressly forbids her to continue further. As the year goes on, relationships become more explosive and Anita’s passing as white could be revealed to the whole college…

The idea of Anita, a real-life figure, and her university story is a great one. There is a lot of fiction involved in joining the dots to make a story, given that little is known about Anita in the twenty-first century. The book opens with Anita’s ongoing, but background sense of unease that nobody finds out her secret. She is also uncomfortable with passing as white, as it could be seen to be disrespectful of her heritage, family and friends back in Boston. But when Lottie rushes in with her money and wit, the focus of the novel turns to that of the college experience – friends, boys, drinking and having fun. It all feels a little detached until Anita’s personal life starts to get messy – her relationship with Porter and Lottie becoming smitten with her brother Frederick. Anita also doesn’t make the best choices for someone with a secret that could get her thrown out of college, but the glitz and glamour of rich New York is too fun for both Anita and the reader to miss. The most exciting and fast paced section of the novel is when Anita’s secret is discovered and held over her. Emotions come to the fore, messy and opinionated. Some of the motives are a little loose, but this section was the most fascinating. I feel as though the whole introduction to Anita’s days at college could have been reduced for more background into the motives for those who backstabbed her, as well as exploring more of her life after college. The first section was just a bit too dry. But overall, The Gilded Years is an interesting story of history and I’m certain Zendaya will make this film engrossing.

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One thought on “REVIEW: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

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  1. Reading your review I realised how hard it must have been for Anita not to reveal things about her family and ancestry. I’m glad times have changed.

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