Archive | 10:14 AM

Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati (3/5)

8 Jan

I was intimidated when I was handed this as my book club selection for January. Granted, we had two months to read it, taking December off for the holidays. I was relieved to find a copy available on Hoopla but dismayed yet again to see it was 31 hours long! Thankfully, I had some long runs as I built up to my half marathon in November and then all the recovery that came after that. Still, this took me over a month to listen to and as such, I have a lot of opinions on it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

Summary from Goodreads:

The year is 1883, and in New York City, it’s a time of dizzying splendor, crushing poverty, and tremendous change. With the gravity-defying Brooklyn Bridge nearly complete and New York in the grips of anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, Anna Savard and her cousin Sophie—both graduates of the Woman’s Medical School—treat the city’s most vulnerable, even if doing so may put everything they’ve strived for in jeopardy.

Anna’s work has placed her in the path of four children who have lost everything, just as she herself once had. Faced with their helplessness, Anna must make an unexpected choice between holding on to the pain of her past and letting love into her life.

For Sophie, an obstetrician and the orphaned daughter of free people of color, helping a desperate young mother forces her to grapple with the oath she took as a doctor—and thrusts her and Anna into the orbit of Anthony Comstock, a dangerous man who considers himself the enemy of everything indecent and of anyone who dares to defy him.

When this book started out, I was amazed. Donati built complicated characters and gave them rich backstories. I was vested in what happened to all of them. But as the book progressed, I was disenchanted. Some characters (literally) left and were ignored for the rest of the story, others were so perfect it became annoying, and some had arcs that were never finished. The book set up so much and did it well. But very little felt closed in my opinion and there was too much filler in the middle.

At first, the characters seemed real and very three-dimensional. My issue became when none of them were dynamic and stayed the same throughout the long novel. No drastic changes in thought or action took place. People who started in a good standing finished there as well. It was overall a dull journey, all things considered, and there was too much plot thrown in and not enough character development.

Jack and Anna were both very likable characters. Between them, I think I preferred Jack because he made Anna happy. Anna was admirable, but Jack was a great support character. He didn’t really have flaws, though, which is the only reason I hesitate to call him my favorite. He was good at his job, a good husband, son, and brother. He was almost too perfect, but he supported Anna and I have to support him for that.

Of the characters, Anna was the most relatable. She was a strong woman and I feel I match that role rather well. She got an education and was working in a field where she was outnumbered, much like I feel working at an engineering firm. She seemed ahead of her time, though, and I don’t feel I’m ahead of my time, just with it. All the other women seemed a bit meek, though, so I’d have to say Anna is most like me.

Sara Donati (aka Rosina Lippi)
Image via Wikipedia

I liked the first third of the book. It set up so many potential plot lines that I got really excited about. There were Comstock and the promotion of birth control, Cap and consumption, Anna and the plight of female doctors, the murders, Sophie and racism, and the Russo children. All of these were unique, involved unique characters, and had the potential to develop into a great story. I loved it. However, a lot of this fell flat and stopped. The arc decided to focus on the Russo children and a lot of things fell aside to meet that.

I had fifteen minutes left in the audiobook and realized there was no way that the book was going to wrap up the plot lines I wanted to know about. I wanted to see a man arrested for murder, Sophie returned from Europe and some advancement in racist ideas or sexism. I got none of it. So the end of the book was a huge disappointment. I thought about this book for a day after I finished it and lowered my rating from Four to Three Stars. I was so disappointed in the huge set up to get such a flat ending.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Cassandra Campbell. I felt she did an amazing job with such a long book. She gave each of the characters just enough of an accent to distinguish them while playing true to their background and character. Maybe she was part of why I was so invested at the beginning.

There were a lot of themes brought up in this book that were wonderful and I would have loved for Donati to follow through on them. Family and what was best for a child became the central theme. I kept thinking that Vittorio would somehow be reunited with the girls after he was found, but I understand how what happened was ultimately the best for him. I felt it didn’t end on the best of notes for the family, though. It would always feel like something was missing.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think Donati was too ambitious. She wanted to address so many social issues of the time, but couldn’t fit it all in one novel, even a long novel such as this one. There’s too much to tackle if you take a historical setting as a whole. You have to pick an element of the time, maybe two, and address that. Donati had too many and it ultimately made for a meandering novel whose point wasn’t clear for a long time.

This book was enjoyable but ultimately left me feeling disappointed. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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