Book Review: Where the Light Enters, by Sara Donati • Glam Adelaide

Book Review: Where the Light Enters, by Sara Donati

HISTORICAL FICTION: An epic family drama centring around two pioneering women doctors in 19th-century New York, a time of tremendous change.

A sweeping family saga which sadly has swept up more than it can cope with.

Author Rosina Lippi writes her historical fiction under the pen name of Sara Donati. Her first series of books, Into the Wilderness,tracks the early history of the Bonner/Savard family as they encounter the trials of early settlement in America. The family saga continues in this book, the second in the series called The Gilded Hour which sees the family once again in New York in the dynamic and exciting 1880s.

The size and complexity of the book matches that of the family and as this is the first I have read of her books, I was grateful for the family tree and the clever use of news articles, detectives’ reports and family correspondence to assist both new and returning readers to work out who is who. The range of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds within the extended family reflect those found in the bustling city of New York in the late 19th century.

Central to the story are two female doctors – Dr Sophie Savard, who is of mixed African American, Native American and white heritage, and her friend and cousin Dr Anna Savard, of white heritage. Dr Sophie has just lost her husband to TB and having been left a wealthy widow, now wants to use her money to assist other young women to become doctors. Dr Anna is a skilled surgeon married to a NY detective.

The complex web of relationships within and, at times beyond the family, requires some effort to keep them straight in one’s head. This is presumably why Donati feels it necessary to include occasional catalogues of description to clarify who is doing what to whom. I found these irritating and distracting as the upbeat pace is disturbed and I tended to skip over these to get back to the more brisk narrative action.

The author interweaves the differing viewpoints of various family members with accurate historical research. The intensity of the movements for women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights as demonstrated through the activities of the Drs Savard, is contrasted sharply with the unscrupulous morality of the Roman Catholic Church in trying to take orphans away from loving, non-Catholic families. Readers also learn about the self-appointed guardian of decency, Anthony Comstock, and his crusade against contraception. These issues are relevant to the story as the two doctors become involved in investigating mysterious disappearances and a possible serial killer.

I did not know this book was part of a series as it is not mentioned on the book’s cover. Perhaps if I had read all the preceding books about this family I would be better informed about all the subtle ins and outs of the relationships and the historical background which brought them to the times portrayed in Where the Light Enters. Being unaware of this background led me to think that the author had researched every controversial issue of the time and then included them all in her novel. In no particular order we have race, sex, religion, women’s rights, murder, abortion, women doctors, money, social class, bigotry, and this list is by no means exhaustive.

At six hundred and fifty pages, this is not a light or a quick read and it covers less than a year of the family’s history. But take my advice and read at least The Gilded Hour before you tackle this book.

Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: September 2019
RRP: $32.99

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