Monday, October 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

I have a new author to add to my list of favorites: Sara Donati. I haven’t read any of her previous books, but I’ve become interested in the time period of her latest: The Gilded Hour. This is the type of historical novel I can lose myself in for hours at a time.

Primarily a family saga, there is something here for everyone: romance, social commentary, a well-researched historical setting, and a murder mystery for good measure.

The primary protagonist is Dr. Anna Savard, a female surgeon (who, as I understand it, is descended from characters populating Donati’s previous novels) dedicated to women’s health and women’s rights. It’s a frightening time for women of all social strata. Although opportunities are expanding, as evidenced by Anna’s own role, there are also powerful social and economic forces aligned to hold them back. One of the most divisive issues is women’s reproductive rights. Not only abortion was illegal, but also contraceptive use. Women who tried to prevent their pregnancies were subject to imprisonment. Anyone who provided any type of advice or instruction on contraceptive practices to women would also be fined and imprisoned. And the prisons were terrible places. (One gets the sense that male condom use was ignored by the authorities chasing down culprits.) As a surgeon who witnessed the consequences of back alley abortion, and who worked in enough charity hospitals to see the devastating effects of poverty, Anna is very well aware of the dire situation of too many women.

Anna’s cousin, Sophie, a "free woman of color," is another Dr. Savard, an OB/GYN with similar convictions and similar interests, but even more constraints.

These women are fortunate to be well off financially with strong family connections and many friends. One of these friends, Cap Verhoeven, is a scion of New York old money families. He’s deeply in love with Sophie, but he’s dying of tuberculosis, which limits the development of Cap’s character, though we do get a sense of him.

And finally, there is Jack Mezzanotte, an Italian police detective. Prejudice against Italians is rampant, but Jack has worked himself into a respected position on the force.

As the book opens, Jack and Anna cross paths while helping a group of Italian orphans who are being shepherded into the care of a Catholic charitable organization. A spark is lit. And when they meet up again, in unlikely circumstances, both are smitten. The relationship builds slowly as they are pulled in to one another’s company by a series of interconnected events, and discover just how much they have in common and how well they complement one another.

This is a long book with numerous interwoven stories and a variety of characters who come to life under Donati’s skilled storytelling. The pace is steady despite the breadth of the tale, and I found the book difficult to put down. It’s hard not to fall in love with these extraordinary people. When the book ended, I was disappointed to leave their world. I was also a bit surprised by how many loose ends were left untied. However, this is supposedly a first book in a series, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it all plays out, and how minor characters in this book may blossom later on. In the meantime, I’ll have to search out Anna and Sophie’s forebears!


  1. I remember enjoying the first two books in Donati's Into the Wilderness series, but I lost interest after the third one. I love the sound of this book so maybe I'll give her another try. :)

  2. I have been wanting to read this book, and some of Donati's others, for a while. This review makes me want to move them to the top of my TBR!