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REVIEW: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

SYNOPSIS: Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country’s most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, the scion of one of New York’s most prominent families.

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.

GENRE: Historical Fiction (based on actual events)

RATING: ★★★☆☆ / 3 interesting stars.

REVIEW: I received this book as part of the Once Upon a Book Club Box (if you haven't heard of it, it's an incredibly fun and interesting take on a monthly subscription box, I highly recommend you check it out It's based on the true story of Anita Hemmings, a young woman who passed as white to attend Vassar. Of course the story told here is fictionalized, but the facts are incredibly interesting and I'm so glad that I was introduced to this bit of American history that I had never known before.

On to the book! It's probably a bit wrong to say that my favorite character was Lottie (at least for the first half of the book). Have you ever seen the 1966 film The Trouble with Angels, starring Hayley Mills (she's also the girl from the original Parent Trap film)? Well if you have seen it, then Hayley Mill's character was exactly what I thought of when I read the parts of Lottie. Her speech and mannerisms, everything! Energetic, posh, and lighting quick, it added this extra level of fun to my reading experience.

Now Anita Hemmings, on the other hand, was a bit too dull. I know that this is entirely by necessity. She's supposed to be unassuming and avoiding notice, but I'm referring more towards her inner thoughts, which help drive the story forward. It all became slow, dull, and repetitive. Her turmoil and thoughts were restated so many times that I grew frustrated. It's also mentioned that Anita was the great beauty of the's actually mentioned a lot. It seemed like her looks were commented on in nearly every chapter. It became annoying. Her character didn't grow much until the very end, although she was acting slightly more reckless on occasion, but still it was lackluster.

I was much more intrigued by all the secondary characters. They all seemed to have more life to them and a level of unpredictability that eventually became the driving force for the book. In a way that makes sense. Anita was essentially at the whim of others, her life not entirely her own, so the fact that the all the other characters seemed to be driving her story is accurate.

I was constantly torn while reading this book. I would swing from interested to bored and then back again. It made for a very choppy reading experience. But overall I'm still glad that I was introduced to Anita Hemmings and could learn more about her after the book was done.


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