Saturday 30 July 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati (2015)

Part mystery, part family saga, part romance, Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour transports you to the streets of 1880s New York, as it traces the story of two female physicians, white surgeon Anna Savard and her mixed race cousin, Sophie Savard, a physician specialising in women’s medicine.

Donati’s late nineteenth-century New York is a melting pot of different immigrant communities, a city teeming with orphaned children, a place marked by extreme inequality. The novel is certainly not for the squeamish. At the centre of the story is a criminal case involving an ‘illegal operation’ (read: abortion) and the message about the importance of women’s reproductive rights (now or then) is clear, often voiced by our primary heroine Anna.

There are multiple plot lines beyond the case (two missing children, a crackdown on the distribution of contraceptive information, a nun who gives up her vocation to pursue medicine, the man Sophie loves dying of tuberculosis, Anna falling for a Jewish/Italian police detective), and at least four different point of views (although we return to Anna’s most frequently).

The conclusion certainly hints towards a sequel to wrap up the loose ends (don’t expect neat resolutions to many of the questions raised) and the feeling that this novel is setting up something larger than these 700+ pages is hard to escape. Initially I wondered what kind of novel I was reading and The Gilded Hour to some extent defies categorisation even upon completion.

Rosina Lippi ('Sara Donati') (1956-)
I loved the richness of the setting, the depth of the characters and the quality of the historical research, but found the romance elements clichéd and Anna a little too liberal to be believable as an (even progressive) woman from the nineteenth century. With her progressive views about race, gender, sexuality, rational dress, even keeping her surname post-marriage, Anna reads more as a product of twenty-first-century than nineteenth-century New York.

Donati is strongest in building a world—a world of human connections as well as sensual detail. The complex cast is always distinguishable, she hops from head to head without losing the reader and she makes us feel at home with a cast of characters who leap from the page. It’s a tour de force in the transportive power of historical fiction and I’d be up for taking a ride on Donati’s time machine again.

Do you know of any novels you think the Secret Victorianist should review next as part of her Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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