Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Received from publisher for review
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.
Set against the vibrant backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era when old money traditions collided with modern ideas, Tanabe has written an unputdownable and emotionally compelling story of hope, sacrifice, and betrayal—and a gripping account of how one woman dared to risk everything for the chance at a better life.
By the time I sat down to start listening to this title I had ENTIRELY forgotten what the book was about, so I was refreshingly surprised as I continued through the book. Tanabe tackled a subject that I had not encountered in historical fiction before, that of the act of an African American choosing to “pass” as white. Of course I had heard of this happening in history classes, but few historical novels tackle the African American experience, especially during this time period. Anita and her brother, Frederick, are able to “pass” as white for the most part, and Anita uses that to enable her to attend the school that she dreamed of attending since she was a young girl, Vassar College. Tanabe explored many avenues of this subject from how different family members and friends looked upon the subject, the views of white society on African Americans, and if it was right or wrong to engaged in the act of “passing”. I thought that she handled the subject well and that I came away with a solid idea of what mental toll doing so might have taken on those who chose to “pass”.
Tanabe was able to strike the proper balance between keeping the plot continuously moving forward and engaging with the reader while weaving in the necessary historical information about “passing”. There were many times that Anita sat an thought about if what she was doing was right, and if not handled well this could feel more like a lecture, but here it was always well integrated into the narrative and didn’t feel out of place. I was enthralled with the life that Anita was leading at Vassar and the glittering society that she was able to access because of her “passing”. Lottie Taylor, a friend and sometimes foe of Anita, was a whirlwind that you never knew where she was going to go next, and you were never quite sure if you could trust her or what she said. There is a thread of budding romance that Anita explores and I felt so much for her and the sacrifices that she had to make in her life. This is certainly a novel that can pull at the heartstrings.
I did have one complaint with the novel at that is that it lost momentum for me about the three-quarters mark. At this point (no spoilers) Anita is done with her time at Vassar and has returned home. She must make decisions about what to now do with her life. Then we jump forward many years and are introduced to her daughter and the life that she now leads and how those earlier decisions affected Anita. I know that the author was trying to show the legacy of Anita’s actions and how times may change but in other ways can stay the same, but I just lost interest. The passion and drama that had characterized the first part of the book was not there in the end and it would have been a better book for me if it ended just a little bit sooner.
Overall, I felt that the narration of the novel was very well done. The pacing was easy to follow and listen to without feeling rushed or dragging. I had a couple issues with there sometimes being too much emphasis on syllables or letters (especially at the end of words or sentences). And more noticeably to my ear as I live in the area, was when the narrator pronounced The Berkshires as Barkshires. I have never heard it pronounced that way before and it pulled me right out of the book.
You can get a feel for this audiobook by checking out this excerpt from the production.
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