The premise of The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe immediately grabbed my attention. Set at Vassar at the end of the 19th century, it tells the story of Anita Hemmings the first black women to graduate from the gilded institution. While at Vasser, she passed as white until … well, you know. It is wonderfully researched and I loved the afterword that tells you what parts are made up and what is true.
In particular, I enjoyed the reflections on what it meant to pass. Was it about turning one’s back on one’s true identity? Hiding? Or was it a way to subvert the system? What was it like to live a secret life? And once one starts to pass, how hard is it to stop?
So the story of The Gilded Years is fascinating in itself, but I was a little let down with the writing. It lacked nuance. It was very much set-up, then crisis. Set-up, then crisis. I guess for such a serious topic, I was expecting a meatier execution. Maybe some foreshadowing that was less transparent?
Who would like this book? I know the previous paragraph seems rather harsh. The truth is, I would still recommend The Gilded Book to many readers. People tend to gravitate to lighter reads for the summer season and The Gilded Years would be a great pick for reading on holiday. Light without making you feel stupid. It also really appealed my love of what I call a boarding school book.