Overall Score: 6.5/10
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Release Date: June 7, 2016
Source: Once Upon a Book Club subscription box
Book Summary (From GoodReads)
Passing meets The House of Mirth in this “utterly captivating” (Kathleen Grissom, New York Times bestselling author of The Kitchen House) historical novel based on the true story of Anita Hemmings, the first black student to attend Vassar, who successfully passed as white—until she let herself grow too attached to the wrong person.
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.
I actually hadn’t heard of this book before it arrived in my Once Upon a Book Club box subscription. I started reading without any expectations and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. This book is based on the story of Anita Hemmings, the first black student to attend Vassar College (although it is highly fictionalized).
The book begins as Anita returns to Vassar for her senior year, her secret safely kept for the last three years. She has been given a room with Lottie Taylor, a larger than life character whose family is incredibly wealthy. The two of them become instant friends and begin their senior year. The author does an excellent job of portraying Anita’s worries and fears by showing the reader the lengths Anita went to in order to preserve her secret. The contrast between her life at Vassar and her home life, or even her brother’s college experience, are quite striking.
However, the character of Anita began to wear on me a bit in the second half of the novel. While I understand the constant state of fear she must have lived in, it was difficult to sympathize with her while her actions weren’t always the smartest. As for Lottie herself, I wasn’t a huge fan of her. I did really enjoy meeting the other secondary characters, although I wish that the Vassar girls had been fleshed out a little bit more.
The book is incredibly rich in detail and does describe the time period quite well. At times, I felt as if I could see the scenes from the book unfolding before me. The descriptions of Vassar and the places Lottie took Anita to visit were equally as intricate as those about Anita’s childhood home and neighborhood. It is a great historical fiction piece that takes place in the Gilded Age. The last portion of the novel was my favorite because it showed life outside of Vassar and the college bubble. Characters dealt with the consequences of their actions and grew because of their experiences. Additionally, the reader was given a glimpse at the rest of the world Anita lived in throughout her life, which made the story much more real for me.
Overall, I’m very glad that I read this novel and was introduced to Anita Hemmings and her story. I actually would have rated this book higher had I not read the author’s note about the real Anita Hemmings and her story at the back. While I understand that it is a fictionalized account, I wish that more of the real story had come through because it portrayed a woman who I admire even more than the fictionalized version.