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The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

The Gilded Hour - Sara Donati

I found this historical novel, featuring female doctors in the 19th century, both enjoyable and frustrating; it will best suit readers who value immersion in characters’ lives over plot-driven narratives, and who don’t mind reading a long (732-page) novel only to have resolutions of major plot threads and mysteries deferred to the sequel. For those readers, the rewards include an extensively researched depiction of New York City in 1883, and a warmhearted story of a large and unusual family. I’d call it comfort reading if it weren’t for the serial killer.

This is my first book by Sara Donati, who previously authored a popular historical romance series; this book, though featuring the descendants of characters from that series, appears to be her transition from historical romance to straight historical fiction. And she certainly picked an interesting subject. Little did I know, by the late 19th century the U.S. had several medical schools specifically for women, including one in New York, which operated from 1863 to 1918, until a coed medical school was available to women. (You can read more about the college here.) And the small number of female physicians practicing at the time included black as well as white women (the first African-American female doctor, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864).

The Gilded Hour gives us two doctors, Anna and Sophie Savard, cousins who were orphaned in childhood and raised by their elderly aunt. Anna is a surgeon, and white; Sophie is an obstetrician and pediatrician, and is of mixed race. Both have love troubles, which take up a significant chunk of the book (Anna’s in particular; we see less of Sophie, especially in the second half). They also have run-ins with one Anthony Comstock, a historical crusader for Victorian morality who arrested doctors for sharing information about contraception. Another plotline deals with two young orphan girls for whom the family becomes responsible, and the search for their missing brothers. And then there is a mystery involving a serial killer who brutally murders women through deliberately botched abortions, described in gruesome detail.

Donati is in no rush, and the book wanders through these and other subplots, as well as spending time on the characters’ domestic lives. She has a tendency to resolve threats to the protagonists before they get truly serious, and to include scenes that don’t strictly advance the plot, as well as a great deal of description and detail about New York at the time. I don’t always have the patience for this type of novel, but found myself invested in the characters and immersed in the setting to the point that this worked for me. The author has clearly done her research on the time period, and I am particularly impressed with the unapologetic focus on women’s health.

But I see no excuse for leaving readers hanging as to the identity of the murderer; in a book this long, there is certainly space to resolve that issue. Much time is spent on Anna’s romance with police detective Jack Mezzanotte, but despite his getting more page time than anyone besides Anna, Jack is never developed beyond the role of generic male love interest. Their many scenes together show us at length why Jack is attracted to Anna – which is not difficult to understand; she has a strong personality and is an attractive young woman – rather than why Anna would be attracted to Jack. Thus, I neither became engaged in this romance, nor found their whirlwind courtship convincing. And there are a couple of detailed S&M-type scenes that contained more information than I wanted to know. Meanwhile, the characters sometimes seemed a little too modern: discussing relatives’ sex lives, for instance, or making out in public.

All that said, Donati can tell a good story, convincing readers of one view of events only to change our minds with new information. Anna and Sophie are tough and believable as professionals, and are sympathetic characters who are easy to root for. The depiction of New York at the time – from hospitals to police stations to orphanages unable to keep up with the vast numbers of homeless children – is fascinating, and the book inspired me to do a bit of my own research. Ultimately, I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequel, which hopefully will not be long in coming.