Book Review: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

About the Book:

A captivating historical novel based on the true story of Anita Hemmings, the first Black student to attend the prestigious Vassar College by – passing as white. For fans of The Vanishing Half and The Gilded Age.


Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country’s most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, she has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Lottie Taylor, an heiress of one of New York’s most prominent families.

Though Anita has kept herself at a distance from her classmates, Lottie’s sphere of influence is inescapable, her energy irresistible, and the two become fast friends. Pulled into her elite world, Anita learns what it’s like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman – the person everyone believes her to be – and even finds herself in a heady romance with a well-off Harvard student. But when Lottie becomes curious about Anita’s family the situation becomes particularly perilous, and as Anita’s graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret.

Set against the vibrant backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era when old money traditions collided with modern ideas, The Gilded Years is a story of hope, sacrifice and betrayal – and a gripping account of how one woman dared to risk everything for the chance at a better life.

Published by Simon & Schuster Australia

Released February 2022

My Thoughts:

Historical fiction inspired by actual history featuring real people has long been a favourite of mine within the genre and coupled with reading that this novel is soon to be a movie produced by Reece Witherspoon, my expectations going in were high. This story had so much potential, and indeed, the research is extensive, this was obvious from the outset, at least in terms of setting the scene within the era. Vassar shines and is immediately on display in all its Gilded era glory. The author also pays particular attention to detailing the growing industrialisation of society and all that it brought in terms of increased comfort for the wealthy.

However, as a fictional biography, it falls short. Far more airtime was given to Lottie Taylor, the main character’s roommate and instant best friend. Lottie was a tiresome character though, entirely cliché, a veritable cardboard cut-out of the spoiled heiress who does nothing except indulge in attention seeking behaviour for every moment she’s awake. The writing was on the wall about her from the start so there were no surprises to be had when she started to show her true nature towards Anita. And then there was the whole college vibe, these women were twenty-two to twenty-four years old and yet they acted like giggly schoolgirls obsessed with gossip, fashion, and men, as opposed to the intelligent and well educated young women they were supposed to be. I kept reading and waiting for the actual story to begin but by page 250, I had to acknowledge that, sadly, this was the story. Gossip Girl meets Sweet Valley High dressed up as The Age of Innocence fan fiction.

So, what of Anita? I never really got a true sense of her, not enough to form any attachment to her or develop any interest in her fate. I was left unconvinced about her, particularly the most important thing, what I thought the novel was going to be about: what it might have been like to be passing yourself off as white in an overtly racist environment. To me, Anita’s feelings and experiences were described only in passing and in a manner that came off very obviously as being done so by an author who honestly didn’t know what such a thing would feel like. Consequently, I was left with this void of not ever getting to the bones of Anita’s story and who she was.

This novel really bothered me as it progressed. So much potential, utterly wasted on frippery. It may well make for an entertaining film, but don’t go expecting anything of substance if the novel is anything to go by. And now I’m going to be rolling my eyes for months every time I see someone on social media gushing about this novel – which they inevitably will. Not on my list of recommendations.

☕☕ + ½

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

  1. I reviewed this title back when it was first released in 2016. It didn’t work for me either, but everyone else was gushing about it. When I saw the movie tie-in re-release, I’d hoped it had gone through another edit… but sounds like it’s not. I suspect sometimes people find it difficult to separate the real historical stories from the merits of the fictionalized accounts, and properly critique the latter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love reading reviews where you didn’t necessarily enjoy the book 😀 You always manage to articulate just why a book didn’t work for you and that’s just as interesting as your reviews for books you absolutely loved. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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