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

Published by St Martin’s Press


The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

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…

This is a fascinating and detailed novel about the life of Alva Vanderbilt, from her husband hunting days until her death.

Being from the UK, I’ve heard the occasional reference to the Vanderbilts and Astors and their immense wealth but never really delved into the specifics so my interest was piqued when I read the synopsis for this book.

The historical information in this book was brilliant and very educational, I learnt a lot about the social structure of high society in New York following the divide from Europe. The poor were starving in the streets while the rich had more money than an entire family could hope to spend in their lifetimes.

The author goes into great detail about the architecture and trappings of the time, which feels very well researched but takes the narrative away from the human aspect of the novel – Alva was a influential and determined woman, but the author didn’t manage to turn her into a sympathetic main character. There was a raging case of ‘poor little rich girl’, even the good work she did towards race relations and the suffrage movement felt like she was being progressive for the sake of being progressive and spiting the people who looked down at her. I can’t tell if this is due to the author’s style of writing and not wanting to put unverified emotions to a historical figure, or whether that’s genuinely what Alva Vanderbilt was like but I feel like a bit of artistic license would have been welcomed here.

She was, by all appearances, quite a selfish woman (not entirely a derogatory thing – especially at a time when women were supposed to be selfless and sacrifice everything about themselves to their husbands, children and men in general) and her aggressive social climbing to earn some autonomy and the privilege of telling a few chosen men to fuck off is a really interesting tale.

I would recommend this book for the taste of history it offers and a peek into the very beginnings of the feminist movement.

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