Sara Donati Explores a Morphing America
The United States of America are arguably plagued by more problems than ever before, to the point where most people don’t have the time nor the desire to look at the country’s past. When the future is as troubling as it is, certain priorities must take place. However, there always remain a few people interested in the past, intent on keeping history alive, even if only in hopes of learning from the mistakes of their predecessors. Sara Donati (real name Rosina Lippi) is an author who most certainly belongs to this group of people, and few novels exemplify this sort of passion the way The Gilded Hour does.
Taking us back all the way to 1883 New York City, we are presented with a world rife with change, splendour, joy, poverty and cruelty alike. The Brooklyn Bridge is almost done being built, all while Anthony Comstock is deep in his campaign against virtually anything even remotely indecent. Among this turbulence as the country approaches the 20th century there are two cousins trying to find their place in the world, Anna and Sophie Savard, both graduates of the Woman’s Medical School.
Though they initially set out to help people as good doctors, they are both soon faced with their own personal trials with a heavy chance of jeopardizing everything they had been working for. On one hand, Anna crosses paths with four children who have lost literally everything, forcing her to make some very difficult personal decisions. On the other hand, Sophie makes the acquaintance of a truly desperate young mother who might very well push her to break the sacred oath all doctors are required to take. In the process, both cousins end up in the crosshairs of Anthony Comstock, a man as dangerous and cunning as he is revered by the minds of the past. Nothing is guaranteed in this new world; Sophie and Anna will have to carve their own path through fate.
The Forgotten New York City
Taking place approximately 140 years ago from now (at least at the moment this review is being written), it feels like the story transports us into a somewhat alien world, which is especially true for people like me who don’t have much knowledge about the time period. The author, however, seems to have every bit of knowledge possible about the New York of 1883, to the point where it feels as if she had lived there herself. The amount of research Donati has put into recreating this world borders on the absurd, and the countless hours she spent reading archives and old newspapers from the times have paid off about as well as they could.
The book is fairly long at approximately 750 pages, leaving the author with quite a lot of room to describe her world in the most intricate and vivid details possible. She touches on a large number of topics, from the bigger ones such as social strife, politics, economics and immigration, to more specific ones such as orphans and medicinal knowledge. Each and every street we walk, every person we witness all feel real, emphasized by our ever-increasing knowledge of the time period.
The best part about all of this information is the author has managed to spread it out strategically to ensure it never drags down the narrative or brings it to a grinding halt. The things we learn always pertain to the characters or the situation at hand in one form or another, and often times having a better understanding of the situation advances the story in itself, for we realize there are implications previously unseen by us.
A Journey of Two Trailblazers
Setting aside all the historical and technical details, we have a very compelling narrative about two people experiencing different aspects of the same world. While both Sophie and Anna start their journeys at essentially the same point, the trials they face are often quite different, doing a good job at varying up the story and keeping things fresh for the most part. While the book itself might be long and filled with gorgeous descriptions, the plot still manages to advance at a consistent pace, and Donati does a fantastic job at ensuring we always know what’s at stake… something many other authors forget to do in their longer tales.
I particularly enjoyed the plot as it got closer and closer to the end, with the cousins’ conflict against Comstock becoming more developed and gaining in importance. It almost started to read like a historical thriller at some point, which I believe helped me maintain an even enjoyment of the book as I flipped through more and more pages. As a villain to our protagonists, Comstock is definitely someone we can easily hate, and I would bet Donati didn’t have to use much of her imagination to make it so… sometimes, the truth of history provides a better fuel than we could ever comes up with.
There are also numerous side-plots involving our lovable protagonists, including two romances which, while I personally may not be a fan of, I found to be well-written and good for a few laughs here and there. However, I should mention not all the plot lines are brought to a conclusion in this first novel, especially a fairly important one relating to the main story. This is perhaps the only knock on the book, however I do understand the author’s desire to leave things open for a sequel, which by the way, came out in September 2019.
The Final Verdict
The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati is an exceptionally-detailed trek through a New York few of us know about these days, as seen through the eyes of two interesting and admirable protagonists. If you enjoy historical fiction, especially relating to late 19th century New York, then I highly recommend you give this a novel read.
Sara Donati is a pen name used by Rosina Lippi, a former academic, university professor, and currently an author. Under the name of Sara, she has penned a number historical novels, many of them parts of the Wilderness series, with her most successful one being The Gilded Hour. Some of her additional notable works include Into the Wilderness, The Endless Forest, Lake in the Clouds and Fire Along the Sky.