A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts
By: Therese Anne Fowler
# of pages: 400
Challenges: A to Z, What’s in a Name? (“woman”)
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 bestfriend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths–and elevated the Vanderbilts.
From 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 abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.
But how much of 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…
Review: I checked this book out thinking it was a non-fiction biography. However, I quickly discovered that it is actually a novel based on a real person and true events. In the back of the book the author says why she decided to write a book about Alva Vanderbilt, where she found her references, and why she included certain elements in the book.
The story follows Alva Vanderbilt’s life from before she was a Vanderbilt to her extravagant life after marrying William K. Vanderbilt. At the time, the Vanderbilts were new to New York City high society (basically the nation’s high society). Alva was influential in the Vanderbilts’ acceptance. The same energy, positivity, and tenacity that helped her accomplish that feat served her well in the years to come as she changed both NYC’s appearance and society. As the years wore on, she also made a huge difference in women’s rights in the U.S. and Britain both intentionally and unintentionally.
Alva questioned norms and stood up for herself. This novel allows the reader to see her point of view and question the information that has previously been published about this strong willed woman. Of course it’s fiction and there’s no way to know exactly what Alva thought about or how she acted in private, but the author claims to have researched Alva’s life thoroughly and explains why she chose to portray Alva the way she did.
I recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and biographies.
Why I gave this book 4/5 stars: Interesting, well written, informative.