Sara Donati’s spellbinding novel “The Gilded Hour” tells the intertwined stories of two young women, both physicians, in the years of the 1880s. Donati reads Sept. 1 at Village Books in Bellingham and Sept. 11 at the University Book Store in Bellevue.
As the number of remaining pages in my copy of “The Gilded Hour” dwindled and shrank, I found myself unaccountably reading more slowly. Usually it’s a race to the finish, eagerly seeking the resolution to intriguing dilemmas and plot twists. This time, I finally realized I was slowing down because I didn’t want to leave the book. The 752 pages were not enough.
This gives you an idea of how captivating Sara Donati’s newest novel is — no surprise to the legions of fans who have followed Donati’s six historical-fiction epics about the Bonner family in the wilderness of upstate New York (spanning the years 1792-1823, and beginning with “Into the Wilderness,” published in 1998). “The Gilded Hour” (Berkley, 752 pp., $27.95) jumps ahead to the year 1883; it focuses on two descendants of the original “Wilderness” protagonist, Nathaniel Bonner.
And what a pair of women these descendants are! Anna (Liliane) and her distant cousin Sophie, both orphaned and raised in comparative affluence by their Aunt Quinlan in Manhattan, are physicians in an era where this profession is uncommon for women, but newly possible.
The author of “The Gilded Hour” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Village Books in Bellingham, free (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com); and at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11, at the University Book Store’s Bellevue branch, free (425-462-4500 or ubookstore.com).
Brave, high-minded and independent, Sophie and Anna are nonetheless different from each other in a significant way. Sophie is a “free woman of color,” the child of French, Seminole and African ancestors; she is termed a mulatto, and her principles initially lead her to refuse to marry Cap Verhoeven, the upper-class man with whom she is in love.
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Anna is a surgeon who devotes her life to helping orphaned and abandoned children; Sophie is an obstetrician who grapples with the fact that providing contraception or abortion advice or services is illegal.
When Anna encounters four little Italian orphans who need her help, her quest to reunite the family takes her in unexpected directions — and leads her to the man she will marry. Sophie must grapple with Cap’s diagnosis of tuberculosis, then considered a death sentence, and the faint possibility of a treatment in Switzerland.
All these plot lines take place as the Brooklyn Bridge nears completion, immigrants flood the docks and orphan asylums are bursting at the seams with children of Italian, Jewish, Catholic and many other backgrounds.
At the opposite end of this colorful spectrum, Donati shows us the marble-floored, statue-bedecked domiciles of the rich, with “the multitude of jewels this class of people wore like war medals, embedded in buttons and hair combs, sewn onto skirts and bodies and capes, displayed on throats and wrists, fingers and ears.”
Donati’s painstaking research recreates the sights, sounds, aromas and precise layout of the neighborhoods in which “The Gilded Age” is set. Press reports of the day fill out her depiction of Anthony Comstock, and his prosecution of doctors who dared to make information about contraception available to patients.
But this novel is more than its setting: it also is an enthralling love story, a heartwarming celebration of human kindness, and a wonderfully convoluted world of characters whose destinies are left tantalizingly suspended. Readers will live in hope of a sequel.
Donati’s own paternal grandmother, we discover in the Author’s Notes, was an Italian orphan who, along with three siblings, was orphaned or abandoned in the same milieu described in the novel. Donati, a pen name for Bellingham author Rosina Lippi, was named for her grandmother; “The Gilded Age” celebrates the grit and passionate tenacity that Donati imagines so clearly.