The Gilded Hour: Sara Donati’s First Offering in a New Series
As a long-time fan of Sara Donati’s six-book Into the Wilderness series, I was thrilled to learn that the author has a new series coming out this fall that continues the stories of the Bonner descendants. The Gilded Hour (Berkley, 2015) centers on Anna and Sophie Savard, cousins and female physicians in New York in 1883, and the second-class citizenship women faced as both healers and patients during this time.
“The patriarchy did as much as they could get away with to restrict women’s sphere of influence,” Donati writes about the state of medicine in the 1880s. “Women physicians were limited to caring for women and children, and were often blackballed out of medical societies. They set up their own medical colleges and societies, which they did very efficiently, of course. But no matter how hard they worked, or how smart they were, they had mountains put in their way. They had no voice in the laws that governed their own healthcare and reproductive rights. In writing this novel, I imagine that one of the hardest aspects of what Anna and Sophie did, day to day, was treating women in dire circumstances with little hope of improvement.”
Indeed, it’s easy to see the frustrations both women faced in the world, and Anna, in particular, comes across as a very determined young woman, one who knows what she wants to accomplish and is forceful in those endeavors. Donati admits, however, everybody makes sacrifices, and Anna, while driven, always feels she’s coming up short somewhere. Fortunately, she finds a man ahead of his time in Jack, whose own mother was highly unusual, thus opening the door for him to accept Anna for who she is.
“Imagine what a scandal it was in the 1840s for the daughter of a Rabbi from one of the oldest Jewish enclaves in Italy to defy her father and marry a Catholic,” Donati explains. “As a young man, Jack saw that women like his mother were very rare, and it made him value intelligence and self-confidence. He would’ve been miserable with a girl raised to be an obedient housewife. And then Anna came along.”
Anna’s story is the focus for The Gilded Hour, but her cousin Sophie’s story is important as well. Sophie’s mixed heritage labels her a woman of color, and this makes life doubly hard, especially when it comes to Sophie’s relationship with Cap, the man she loves but feels she cannot have. Donati says that if the two lived in Paris, it would have been easier to be together openly, but the two would still have had a hard time of it. Cap’s illness becomes the deciding factor for both, and Donati says we’ll be feeling closer to her in the sequel.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Gilded Hour is the seamless way Donati weaves real-life characters with her own. Those interspersed with Anna and Sophie include Mary Putnam Jacobi and her husband, Abraham, both physicians and progressive for their time, who have great influence on both girls. There is also Anthony Comstock, who is a rabid anti-vice crusader, determined to purge New York City of anything he feels is indecent. Donati admits he was hard to write because there was a risk of his becoming a caricature based on his real-life actions. He’s the man you love to hate and cannot wait to see how far he’ll go to accomplish his goals.
There’s so much more that comprises The Gilded Hour, including orphans shuffled among several homes, women fighting for control of their reproductive issues, and even a murder mystery. Donati’s love of research and attention to detail bring the story alive and flesh out the adventure. The strong female-led household definitely continues the tale of the Bonners in ways all readers will applaud.
About the contributor: Tamela McCann, a US Editor for the HNS, is an avid reader/reviewer of historical and young adult fiction. When not reading or writing, she can be found teaching middle school technology in Nashville, TN.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 74, November 2015