The Gilded Hour is latest (and launch of a new series) by historical fiction writer Sara Donati. Having loved her Wilderness series, I jumped at the chance to read her latest that features the ancestors of the fictional Bonner family introduced in Donati’s Wilderness. It is one of my most anticipated reads of the fall. Here, the setting in 1883 New York and focuses on two cousins, Drs. Anna Savard and Sophie Savard. Both these young doctors face trials, both personally and professionally, and through them readers are taken on a tour of historic New York. And, it’s one of those books that you finish and can’t quite let go – which makes writing a coherent review that praises the awesomeness that is this book quite difficult!
At 752 pages The Gilded Hour is a behemoth. With this somewhat daunting length you would expect or assume that this due to be a tedious read. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Gilded Hour was a book that I flew through and thought about when I wasn’t reading it. The subject matter and the characters that are introduced create a compelling and emotionally engaging read. It’s a story that I wanted to talk about, and talk about it I did. I’m fairly certain co-workers are sick of hearing me rave about the book, but if it gets them to read the book, well, mission accomplished.
What I really like about Donati’s writing in general and in The Gilded Hour in particular is her ability to elicit an emotional reaction to historical details. Rather than giving readers the facts and figures, readers get a sense of the people who lived during the period the book is set in. There were many instances in The Gilded Hour where I could feel myself getting so angry because of the behaviour of people our heroines encountered. The opposition that Anna and Sophie face as women doctors is infuriating as well as the comments and disrespect that they receive from their male colleagues. Birth control, abortion and women’s rights are all themes that are explored extensively throughout the book. And being a woman, I, you know, care about these things. What I didn’t expect was the anger I felt on these characters’ behalf. Anna and Sophie are treated as second-class citizen in several notable occasions and their professions also open the doors to the patients they administer. The information that Donati delivers with this peak into history wasn’t new, but I think it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. The fact that I was emotional invested in the book, and sharing it with every reader I know, is a testament to the strength of the storytelling in The Gilded Hour.
While themes of women’s rights, immigration, and race were are an integral part of The Gilded Hour what makes this book something extra special is the characters that are introduced. Both Anna and Sophie are strong woman, but strong in different ways. Anna is more clinical and practical and Sophie the more compassionate and emotional. Unlike many women their age, both are unconventional in that they have both pursued a career in medicine. While both characters were interesting and complex, I think readers get to “know” Anna much better than Sophie. Arguably, The Gilded Hour is Anna’s book.
Anna Savard grew up cared for but also impacted by the fact she was orphaned as a child. By circumstances Anna encounters a family of four young, recently orphaned Italian children, and she becomes embroiled in keeping these children together because of the parallels she sees to her own childhood. These children also bring Anna into contact with Italian police sergeant Jack Mezzanotte, who assists her when two of the four orphaned children go missing. Jack is all too happy to help since he’s been captivated by the practical Dr. Savard since laying eyes on her. The romance between Anna and Jack is a significant aspect of the story and it was absolutely lovely and it provided a means for Anna’s character to explore other facets to her personality. Anna was more than a doctor and this romance helped to show that. Seriously, it was swoon worthy. It helps that Jack is really quite cool with having a working wife and respects her opinion and knowledge, even seeking her help when he and his partner investigate what appear to be the work of a serial killer.
Finishing The Gilded Hour there is not the sense that the story is completed. There is so much left at loose ends. Jack and Anna are still trying to track down the doctor that is butchering woman that attempt to have abortions. Sophie’s narrative seemed to have dropped off when she left the country for Europe. And new characters are introduced like former nun turned aspiring doctor, Elise. There is so much fodder for future books I’m left astounded that this book was only 700+ pages – it needs to be more! Anyone familiar with Donati’s writing will love this newest book, and it sparks my own desire to go back and revisit the Wilderness series. Romance and a rich historical setting were combined so effortlessly in The Gilded Hour I can’t recommend it enough for historical and romance readers alike.
It’s hard to put into words what makes The Gilded Hour such a wonderful read. It’s smart and thought provoking, and I can say is that you should read it. Right now.
*Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.
If you appreciated the historic detail and the themes explored in The Gilded Hour, then Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham is a great follow-up. While not as focused on the status of women, Faye’s trilogy shows you the gritty world of New York – and it’s not pretty. Murder is rampant. Immigrants are treated abysmally. See my full review to find out why The Gods of Gotham is a compelling read.
Women doctors and the controversy of abortion were huge parts of The Gilded Hour, and the roots of that conflict is grounded in historical fact. For another novel that explores abortion in great detail, Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is another good follow-up as it focuses on a female abortionist operating in New York.
If you haven’t read Sara Donati yet, well, you need to start at the beginning with Into the Wilderness, which introduces you to the ancestors of Anna and Sophie Savard. Like in The Gilded Hour, Donati bring history alive and gives readers an absolutely beautiful love story.