In turn-of-the-20th-century New York, a woman passes as white to attain a college education.
Anita Hemmings, a real person, was the first black woman to graduate from Vassar College. To do so, she passed as white, and when her secret was discovered, her story filled newspapers across the United States. In her third novel, Tanabe (The List, 2013, etc.) sets out to illuminate that story. She focuses on Anita’s senior year of college, when her roommate was Lottie Taylor, in Tanabe’s telling a millionaire Manhattan socialite. Anita spent her first three years at Vassar flying under the radar: she studied hard, participated in various clubs, and held herself aloof to avoid suspicion. Tanabe’s descriptions of Anita’s isolation are effective. Then Lottie appears, drawing Anita out of herself and into her own high-society world. She even introduces Anita to the rich, handsome, and, of course, white Porter Hamilton, with whom Anita finds herself falling in love. These experiences put Anita at greater risk of being caught, but they also frame for her a fundamental choice she’ll have to make: to live as white, and to unbind the scope of her ambition, or to live as black, with all the restrictions that Gilded Age American life entailed. This is a detailed, well-researched book, and yet there’s something unconvincing about Tanabe’s depiction. It’s as if the psychological complexity of Anita’s situation has been somehow flattened. None of the characters—not even Anita or Lottie—ever come fully to life. Too much attention is paid to Vassar trivia and not enough to Anita’s fate, which is ultimately rushed through at the unsatisfying end. Tanabe has brought attention to a brilliant and fascinating woman, but she doesn’t seem to have done her justice.
A novel about race, education, and the fin de siècle fight for equal rights is left wanting.