Sara Donati Continues the New York Adventure
Many are the authors who who aim to explore different time periods in human history, and yet it still feels as if we have a tremendous amount of uncharted territory to go through. The closer we look at any time period, the more we come to realize the various years making it up can often be unique microcosms now only found in history books. Because of the events which followed it in the 20th century, it feels to me as if the late 19th century has been a tad overlooked, which is an element which initially drew me to Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour, the first book in the series by the same name. With Where the Light Enters, we get to continue the remarkable adventures of the doctors and cousins, Sophie and Anna Savard.
The story opens by taking us to 1884 Manhattan, in the early spring, as both of our doctors seem to have finally managed to establish a foothold for themselves in an ever-changing society. While Sophie has decided to dedicate her life to helping and saving the disadvantaged women forgotten by society, Anna has found herself a husband, the Detective-Sergeant Jack Mezzanotte. Just when it looks like things are in danger of becoming a little stable, a violent fury casts its shadow over New York.
Jack finds himself dealing with two rather peculiar cases he can’t make heads or tails of. The first one is the disappearance of a prominent banker’s wife, who seems to have literally vanished into thin air with no one being the wiser. The second case pertains to the body of a young woman, with some baffling wounds which might suggest a very unstable individual is on the prowl in the city. Having little recourse, Jack enlists the help his wife and her cousin as consultants, hoping they might nudge things in the right direction. Seeing this as yet another opportunity to help the less fortunate and make some kind of difference in the world, the cousins set out on a dangerous road where some men have seen the worst brought out of them.
The Beats of the Big Apple
To start things off, I would like to draw your attention to the strongest element of the book, which I also believe was the case for the first novel in the series: the setting. Donati has once again shown the fruits of all her countless hours spent researching this time period, with one evocative and vivid description after the next. Whether we’re walking down a street, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, or exploring a crime scene, our senses are consistently flooded with information to the point where it takes little effort to recreate the scene in your mind.
While there certainly is a strong plot to the book (more on this a tad later), I feel an integral part of the story lays in exploring the city, its inhabitants, and learning about them as people living in a period rife with changes of all sorts, rather than simple and vague background characters. The many people who teach us bits and pieces about life back in those times are all expertly crafted by the author to be not only believable, but feel like they were born from the world we are journeying through. As much as the author wanted to tell a story, she also really wanted to give us a virtual tour of Manhattan, and I believe she more than succeeds as our guide.
Coming into this book, I had a worry Sara Donati would only have so many things to talk about and teach us, especially considering how much she did of it in the previous book. Thankfully, it always seems like she has a new subject lined up for us, and I can seldom, if ever recall any notable repetitions in her exploration of the city. How long she can keep this going, I have no idea, but so far it seems like she may have a few novels’ worth of material to share with the world.
The Prowler in Darkness
As mentioned before, there is certainly a plot in this book beyond touring the streets of New York, and in my personal opinion it presents a somewhat more interesting intrigue than the last novel… mostly because I am a huge fan of murder mysteries. While the previous book had a much greater focus on the sisters’ battle to carve a little space for themselves in the hostile world they are inhabiting, here we already see them as somewhat established in their lives and professional fields, setting the stage for a greater use of their characters and respective talents.
I should note at this point this book completely works as a standalone novel, and there are refreshers as to the events of the previous novel for those who forgot or never knew about them. While I certainly do recommend reading the first novel, it’s not necessary to understand and enjoy this book. As is usually the case though, you would be missing out on a lot of interesting character development.
In any case, Jack’s mysteries are definitely a strong element which help push the plot forward, and while in and of themselves they might not be the greatest detective tales ever written, they are definitely made unique by the setting and social context. Donati shows she is quite capable of writing a murder mystery if need be, and knows how to balance the advancement of the plot (discovery of clues and new questions) with character development for the cousins.
Perhaps naturally, the investigations do end up tying in with the greater themes the author seeks to explore, namely relating to the oppression of women we are all too quick to forget about. Time and time again we are reminded of how far we have come as a society, and how much more we have to travel still.
The Final Verdict
Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati is an excellent second entry into the Gilded Hour historical saga, bringing a murder mystery into the mix this time. Few authors explore late 19th-century New York with the same vivid passion as Donati does, something only complemented by her talents as a wordsmith and the extremely likeable yet realistic protagonists she created. From thrills, twists and turns to historical and social commentary, this novel pretty much has it all, and I can only recommend it if you’re interested in fiction from this time period.
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.