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, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, the scion 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 moneyed Harvard student. It’s only when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s brother, Frederick, whose skin is almost as light as his sister’s, that the situation becomes particularly perilous. And as Anita’s college graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret.
I don’t remember how I discovered this book in the first place, but I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. The Gilded Years’ cover is probably one of my favorites ever and the blurb had me intrigued. This is the story of Anita Hemmings, Vassar’s first African-American student… but the truth is that no one else knew. Anita had to pass as a white student in order to attend the university and lived there for a couple of years as a white woman thanks to her light skin tone. Of course, if we’re reading this now, it means that, eventually, her secret was discovered…
Karin Tanabe’s writing was gorgeous and elegant and it’s pretty obvious that she did tons of research on the topic (you can read about that at the end, although most of it is fictionalized). This book had clearly something unique about it and I’m sure The Gilded Years would make a beautiful period film. Those quiet stories that end up winning Oscars…
I absolutely loved the setting and the era -despite the circumstances- and the way the author described New York and the different colleges that the characters visited. I didn’t know about Anita until the cover caught my eye, but hers was an incredible story and I’m so glad I decided to read this book. I think everyone should know her story.
Even though there wasn’t much drama until the final act, the tension was there from the beginning. You could feel something bad was going to happen at some point… you just didn’t know when. Once I got there, I couldn’t believe what was happening, I couldn’t believe someone would do and say those things in real life. This book made me so angry, you can’t even imagine. I felt as helpless as Anita and I wanted to get inside the book and start yelling at everyone. And it’s not a happy feeling, but I always appreciate it when books make me feel so emotional.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction and stories set in universities or boarding schools, I’m pretty sure you’ll love The Gilded Years. I know there are many differences and it isn’t even the same century, but I was reminded of Enid Blyton’s boarding school series. There are the good guys, the villains… and those who end up surprising you.
Simon & Schuster, 2016