Book Recommendation: The Gilded Hour, by Sara Donati

The Author

Sara Donati is the pen name of Rosina Lippi, a former academic who writes contemporaries under her own name and historical novels under Sara’s.  This is the first book I have read by Donati/Lippi, but it certainly won’t be the last.  I particularly enjoyed the sense I got from this book of meticulous research (I think you can see Lippi’s academic background coming through here) combined with rich storytelling, and hope to see that same combination in her other works.

Rosina Lippi has an interesting bio of her own life on her website, including numerous quirky facts about her likes and dislikes, which is well worth checking out.

The Book

The Gilded Hour is set in New York City in 1883, and as a reader you definitely get a sense of the period right from the opening pages.  Though told from several different points of view, The Gilded Hour predominantly tells the story of a young female surgeon, Dr Anna Savard, and (to a lesser extent) her racially mixed cousin, Dr Sophie Savard, a physician.  Both women face considerable prejudice in a time when female doctors are not common, but it is particularly difficult for Sophie, who faces the additional stigma of what many of her contemporaries call ‘mulatto.’

As the story begins, Anna assists an order of Catholic nuns by providing health certificates for a group of predominantly Italian children orphaned in a recent smallpox epidemic.  These certificates are necessary for the children to gain entry to New York City, where they will be separated by gender and sent to orphanages.  In the processing of examining the children, Anna meets a family of four: Rosa, Tonino, Lia, and Vittorio Russo, who range in age from nine years old (Rosa) to infancy (Vittorio).  Little Rosa is fiercely determined to keep her family together, to keep a promise to her now-dead mother.  Anna also meets Giancarlo ‘Jack’ Mezzanotte, an Italian-American police officer who is assisting the nuns by translating for those of the children who speak little English.

Afterwards, Anna returns to her normal life as a member of a wealthy and well-respected family, but it isn’t long before big changes begin.  Rosa and her siblings are, predictably, separated by the nuns, with the two boys sent in one direction and the two girls sent in another.  Worse still, there is a scuffle on the docks as the children are being sorted into different conveyances, and it afterwards becomes apparent that the two boys never even made it to the orphanage with the others in their group.  Rosa and Lia flee the orphanage they are taken to, and go in search of Anna, who Rosa believes will help them find their brothers.

Fortunately for Rosa and Lia, Anna’s family is unconventional, kind, and perfectly willing to take in two orphaned children.  Anna, along with Jack Mezzanotte, also begins searching for the missing Russo boys, though it’s a daunting task and involves treading carefully through the bureaucracy of the Catholic church.

Alongside the search for the boys, Anna and her cousin Sophie find themselves facing trouble of a different kind.  One of Sophie’s patients, desperate to prevent another pregnancy, asks her for information on contraception, which Sophie is legally forbidden from providing her.  The patient later dies after an abortion gone terribly wrong, and Anna and Sophie find themselves under the scrutiny of Anthony Comstock (a real-life figure who was obsessed with censoring ‘obscene’ materials such as information about birth control).

Why I Love It

It took me a few chapters to really get into this book, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.  The Gilded Hour begins a new series, but the characters are the descendants of people whose tale was told in a previous six-book series.  I feel like some of my initial confusion about how all the different family members fit together may have been lessened if I had read that other series first.  However, I can assure you that it is indeed possible to get on top of things, and The Gilded Hour is well worth it.

Once I had the characters sorted out in my mind, I fell in love with the depth and richness of this novel.  I had no previous familiarity with 1880s New York City, but after reading this book, I feel like I know considerably more.  The Gilded Hour is clearly thoroughly researched, but what I think is particularly impressive is that Donati avoids ‘information dumps’ and never lectures the reader with historical fact. Rather, she uses her historical knowledge to make her setting and characters come alive.  There were times during this book when I wanted to shout with frustration at some of the things Anna and Sophie were forced to deal with because of the laws and beliefs of the time, and at least one moral dilemma comes up in the course of the book that – days later – I still haven’t come to a firm opinion on.

As well as the setting, I liked the characters in this book.  Anna and Sophie are wonderful, and I wish it was possible to meet their Aunt Quinlan in real life.  Jack Mezzanotte and his fellow cop, Oscar Maroney, are good men trying to do their best in a corrupt force, and it’s particularly interesting to watch how the police respond to the demands of Anthony Comstock.  In addition, there’s a huge cast of supporting characters of varying levels of importance; this isn’t one of those books where the main characters float around in isolation.  There are plenty of shades of grey to be found here; Jack’s family, for example, is gregarious and kind, but one of his sisters is rather unpleasant to Sophie based on the colour of her skin.

One thing to be aware of with The Gilded Hour: This is not the end of the story, and there are a lot of questions left unanswered.  The next book in the series (Where the Light Enters) is not due out until next year, though there are a couple of short excerpts posted on the author’s website.  I’m going to spend that time digging up the six books in the previous series, but I will still be waiting with bated breath to see what happens next for Anna.

Where To Get It

My local library didn’t have The Gilded Hour when I went looking for it, but I was able to order it in from a library elsewhere in my state.  It’s also available on Book Depository.

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