Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler
Published October 2018 by St. Martin's Press
Source: my ecopy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Alva Smith, her southern family destitute after the Civil War, married into one of America’s great Gilded Age dynasties: the newly wealthy but socially shunned Vanderbilts. Ignored by New York’s old-money circles and determined to win respect, she designed and built 9 mansions, hosted grand balls, and arranged for her daughter to marry a duke. But Alva also defied convention for women of her time, asserting power within her marriage and becoming a leader in the women's suffrage movement.

My Thoughts:
Alva Vanderbilt
Kirkus Reviews called this one “mesmerizing.” That’s not the word I would choose, but I did enjoy this book a lot. Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont was a fascinating woman who lived her own advice, “First marry for money, then marry for love.” In the end, she truly found her own path.

William K. Vanderbilt
First marry for money: Alva was desperate and William was willing. His family needed the social cache her family name brought. Both of them got what they wanted. Sort of. William is well aware of his wife’s worth (she did, after all, find the ways to bring the Vanderbilt family into high society), but he is so self-absorbed that he didn’t think to do the things that would truly make Alva happy. Instead he showers her with jewelry and then is off again to do his own thing. William was far more interested in boats and horses than in his family or the family business. He comes off as a grown up little boy.

The Fifth Avenue house
In Fowler’s hands, Alva vacillates between kowtowing to society standards and standing firm for her beliefs. She convinces her father-in-law to foot the bill for magnificent mansions for all of his children on the pretense that it will benefit society at large as these will be works of art. Yeah, right. But she also insists on working closely with the architect, shocking society matrons by being so closely involved. I vacillated between really liking Alva and really believing she was all about the Benjamins. This is the bulk of the story and Fowler really makes the Gilded Age, and the gilded cage, come alive.

Then marry for love: Alva harbors the hots for one of William’s friends for decades; her back and forth got a little old, sometimes. But she’s far too virtuous and far too aware of what’s at stake, especially for her children if there were to be a scandal, to ever act on it. Until at last she is a free woman. As the wife of Oliver Belmont, Alva finally gets to be loved and to be understood for who she is. She cuts loose and does what she wants, society be damned. You can’t help but be happy for her.

Alva Vanderbilt
Find her own path; In her later years, Alva became a very active suffragette. She’d long championed women’s rights and, at last, she could be part of a group advocating for women. Unfortunately, there’s not much of that in this book. Fowler has, instead chosen to make the book about Alva’s life with the men in it. She does include an afterward that brings readers up to speed with Alva’s life on her own.

Two last things:
This is one of my favorite book covers in a while. It’s perfect for the story. It’s the little things, sometimes.
Gratuitous picture of Hugh Grant
Also, Is it wrong that I thought of the Wade brothers from Two Weeks’ Notice when Fowler was writing about William and his brother, Corneil, William being the Hugh Grant character of the Vanderbilt family? I mean, Corneil was serious about the work and maintaining the family business, William was the social one, more interested in the ladies and fun. To be fair to Grant's character, George Wade, George spent more time in the office than William apparently did.

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