Tuesday, June 7, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

New Release: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

In 1897, Anita Hemmings begins her senior year at the exclusive, all-girls Vassar College. During her first three years, she distinguishes herself by academic achievement and participation in many extra-curriculars, as well as being known as one of the great beauties of the school. What her classmates and professors don’t know, however, is that Anita Hemmings is African-American. She is the granddaughter of slaves. She and her brother Frederick, both brilliant, hard-working scholars, are light-skinned enough to "pass" as white. Frederick is attending M.I.T. as a black man. Because Vassar does not admit African-Americans (and would not until the 1940s), Anita applied and was accepted to Vassar as a white student.

Despite her successes, Anita has kept a low profile. Attending Vassar was her lifelong dream, and she knows if she’s found out, she’ll be dismissed. So far, so good. But this is her senior year, and Anita is about to risk all.

The school’s most flamboyant heiress, Lottie Taylor, is without a roommate and is assigned to room with Anita. Nervous at first about rooming with the insanely wealthy, rule-flaunting Lottie, Anita is soon seduced by the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Lottie craves an appreciative audience, and Anita is bowled over by the generosity of her new roommate, and by the promise of so much fun.

Warned repeatedly by her brother not to risk mixing with the hoity-toity, especially with wealthy men, Anita can’t help jumping in feet first. Not only does she begin rubbing shoulders with high-society folk in New York City, but she also falls in love with a Harvard man. It’s only a matter of time before the carefully constructed life she leads at Vassar is threatened.

I had a mixed reaction to the book. The novel paints a detailed picture of the social life and day-to-day routines at turn of the century Vassar and in Gilded Age New York. It addresses issues of inequality and the psychological stress of passing for white. However, it seemed that while the issues were obvious, they were glossed over in the effort to portray the thrilling life of wealthy Vassar students. The book succeeds at showing society girls at a school that catered to them, a school that is renowned for also providing quality higher education, but the frippery overshadowed the more interesting part of the story.

So much time was spent describing the social events of the school, the pampering they received as privileged young ladies, the lengths they went to in order to obtain dates with Ivy League men, that the book seemed more a celebration of Gilded Age values than a book exploring issues of race. There was so much detailed description of the trappings of wealth that I trudged through lengthy portions of the book. The conversations were stilted, particularly at the beginning of the book where characters spoke at each other in order to heap backstory and explanations on the reader. Lottie was an unpleasant character, recognized as unpleasant even by her friends. Anita’s somewhat desperate desire to remain in Lottie’s favor and the excuses she makes for her wealthy friend seem both naive and opportunistic. I suspect the lavish displays are to help us understand Anita’s longing to be part of the world, but it made some of her protestations that all she wanted was a first class education ring hollow.

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