Title: A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
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ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
Author Therese Anne Fowler shines a light on one of the Gilded Age’s most fascinating and misunderstood women in her newest fictional biography, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts.
In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt’s Fifth Ave. costume ball – a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family’s good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva’s best friend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths – and elevated the Vanderbilts.
From the outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball – no mere amusement – wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied a box at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.
But how much ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? – There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.
And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who’s hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?
Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England’s most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There’s only one way to know for certain…
I’ve always been a history nerd and with it comes my love for historical fiction, but I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t know much about America’s Gilded Age and the families who ruled it like royalties – the Astors and Rockefellers, and, of course, the Vanderbilts. So, naturally, when I saw this book available on NetGalley, I immediately requested it wanting to know more.
And this one didn’t disappoint.
Written in the third person and in the style of an Edith Wharton novel, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts is a well-researched, informative and entertaining fictional biography focused mainly on Alva Belmont and her years as a Vanderbilt.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Alva Smith – who later on became Alva Vanderbilt when she married W.K. Vanderbilt in 1875, then Alva Belmont when she married Oliver Hazard Belmont in 1896 – was a fascinating woman. She’s a contradiction: head strong and confident, driven, ambitious, and a forward thinker even in today’s standards, but at the same time she’s insecure and so full of doubts and fears about herself, her family and their place in society.
Alva is a tough woman in a time when society expects women to stay in the background, arm candies to their rich and powerful husbands. It was just so easy to like her, though, by all means, she did do a whole lot of things with questionable reasons (pushing, almost to the point of forcing, her daughter Consuelo to marry the Duke of Marlborough for one). But that’s just one of the things that make Alva, Alva.
A lot of Fowler’s main character’s concerns may not be relevant to us now (Societal standing be damned) but some of Alva’s struggles like not letting her philandering first husband and his overbearing family (especially her sister-in-law) walk all over her still hits home. Truly, I cannot imagine myself living in her time. Put in her place, I might just punch someone, cause a big scandal and live as a pariah my whole life! My personal thoughts aside, I appreciate how Fowler was able to humanize this deeply interesting woman who lived more than a hundred years ago for a modern-day reader like me. She felt closer – reachable – and it was this that made this book enjoyable for me.
The book, the way it was written, may not work for everyone though. The dialogues may sound too formal, some parts moving too slow at points, but I think these are all justified given Fowler wrote this novel emulating the style of writing particular to that period. One thing I wished this one had more though was Alva’s involvement with the Suffragette Movement. While the end of the book and the long (but informative) author’s note tackled it, I still wanted more and couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting it would be to read about Alva’s part in the movement in story form.
That said, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts is still an engrossing read. I enjoyed this one a whole lot, learning as I read. I definitely recommend it to readers of historical fiction.
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About the Author:
THERESE ANNE FOWLER is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Raised in the Midwest, she migrated to North Carolina in 1995. She holds a B.A. in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing from North Caroline State University.