Review: The Gilded Years, by Karin Tanabe
Atria, 2016. 379 pp. $16
In autumn 1896, Anita Hemmings returns to the place she loves most, the Vassar campus, for her senior year. Not only is she the class beauty (by popular vote), she excels at Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and music, the subjects deemed most suitable for young ladies–along with hygiene, of course. Social convention funnels Vassar graduates toward a single profession, teaching school, if not marriage to a wealthy Harvard or Yale man. But Anita dreams of further study, a professorship, perhaps even fieldwork involving ancient Greek artifacts. For someone of her ability, it’s possible.
Yet it’s also not. Anita is African-American, so for three years she’s been passing as white. To look at her, no one would guess her secret. But if the school were to find out, she’d be expelled, for Vassar doesn’t admit Negroes. In fact, as the story opens, the Supreme Court has just supported segregation, through the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case. Consequently, Anita has survived three years by remaining on the fringes, not exactly keeping to herself, but avoiding the spotlight.
Her senior year, however, she rooms with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, heiress to a New York fortune and a social dynamo. Lottie loves to shock, talking freely, and (perhaps) knowingly, about sex, alcohol, and other forbidden subjects. As she says, “There has never been a woman more worried about appearances than my dear mother. Luckily she has me to appall her around the clock.” So Lottie’s the perfect foil for Anita, pushing her into adventures that threaten to blow her cover, but which Anita can’t resist. It’s not just that Lottie’s a force of nature; it’s that Anita has desires like anyone else. And those yearnings lead her toward Porter Hamilton, a Harvard man smitten with her, a handsome, forward-thinking son of a Chicago lumber baron.
It’s a wonderful setup (based on a real person, incidentally), and Tanabe goes interesting places with it. Every move Anita makes, she risks pain, indignity, or exposure, all of which she must keep to herself, which provides a constant source of tension. The first meeting of the debating club takes up Plessy v. Ferguson, and Anita has been chosen to argue for segregation. By chance, Lottie meets her roommate’s brother, Frederick, and falls for him. Anita suffers her classmates’ casual references to blacks as inferior, which she must of course swallow in silence.
With that much going for it, I wish The Gilded Years had done more to live up to its promise. The slings and arrows that Anita must endure deserve sympathy, but she never explores them to any depth. Tanabe misses many chances here, starting with the Plessy v. Ferguson debate, which could have revealed much, but which the author prefers to summarize after the fact. That explanatory style, telling versus showing, hurts the novel in several respects, especially in character portrayal. To name one example, Anita declares her passion for intellectual subjects, yet her drive to obtain top grades seems to grip her more, because you see and feel it. But her intellectual ambitions pale beside her hopes of marrying Porter Hamilton, a notion that takes her captive maybe six minutes after they meet. I sense that Tanabe’s rushing things because she wants to compress the subplot to fit a grander design, but that comes at a cost. Anita’s undue haste makes her come across more like her flighty, less substantial roommate than herself.
But even the lightning love affair might work if Anita were reflective enough to penetrate her conflicts, rather than simply ricochet off them. Shakespeare’s Juliet famously observed that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, precisely the idea here. But Anita merely dips her toe into what life would be like with Porter but having to deny her family, or how her experience differs from, say, Frederick’s, who could pass physically but hasn’t tried. Despite that good head on her shoulders, she never asks herself what the many accolades she receives from her racist classmates imply about perceptions of beauty, character, intelligence, or social standing. Nor does she ever wonder what makes the Vassar community so sure of its racial and social superiority, what feelings might lie behind this, or how that shapes the world around her. She’s not quite a full person, in other words.
What’s more, it’s Lottie who commands attention, generous and grasping at once in her self-absorption, a grand manipulator and benefactress. It’s she who propels the narrative, has a clearer physical presence (it’s curious that Anita, the campus beauty, doesn’t even rate a physical description), and brings about a climactic confrontation. If Anita can’t drive the action, she could at least spend that energy internally, ripping things apart and trying to reassemble them. Unfortunately, she doesn’t do either.
The publisher calls The Gilded Years “Passing meets The House of Mirth,” evoking Nella Larsen’s 1929 tale of race relations, set mostly in Harlem, and Edith Wharton’s story about social climbing among Fifth Avenue bluebloods, published in 1905. Like other attempts to “package” a novel, the glib comparison misrepresents all three books. Tanabe’s publicists would have done her better service by letting The Gilded Years stand on its own.
The official pub date of The Gilded Years was June 7.
Disclaimer: I received bound galleys from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.