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

Biographic Fiction

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

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 nine 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.

With a nod to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, in A Well-Behaved Woman Therese Anne Fowler paints a glittering world of enormous wealth contrasted against desperate poverty, of social ambition and social scorn, of friendship and betrayal, and an unforgettable story of a remarkable woman. Meet Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, living proof that history is made by those who know the rules—and how to break them.

Knowing something about the history that inspired a story is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re dying for a creative mind to fictionalize the material, but on the other, you want to see it done a certain way and you get intensely frustrated when the author fails to deliver your private expectations. It is, of course, ridiculous to expect anyone to read your mind, but the disappointment exists just the same.

This phenomenon inspired my negative and obscenely biased response to Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter and Allison Pataki’s Sisi series, The Accidental Empress and Sisi: Empress on Her Own. It’s the reason I’ve avoided Susan Appleyard’s In a Gilded Cage and Danny Saunder’s Sissi: The Last Empress and it is the root cause of my delay in reviewing Kerri Maher’s The Kennedy Debutante and Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman.

I’m sharing this because I want to be very clear that my review of this book is slanted by perspective and hope anyone reading it understands that. If you choose to proceed, please try to keep context in mind and be aware of potential spoilers.

I wanted A Well-Behaved Woman to highlight a figure whose drive pushed her to the very height of society, whose blind ambition required sacrifice, who only realized the collateral damage of her decisions late in life, and in an act of redemption used that revelation to reconnect with her daughter and empower the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

What I got was an endless parade of parties and cotillions, marital infidelities and society gossips, topped off with the frills and fuss of keeping up with Mrs. Astor’s four hundred. Call me crazy but the themes I’d envisioned simply weren’t part of this story. The subject matter had so much potential, but Fowler honed in on emotional and social repression. She wrote a poor little rich girl where there might have been a phoenix rising from the ashes to wage a personal war on the institutions and policies that held her back, a war that in many ways continues through the present day.

Reviews and ratings are subjective and my commentary is no exception. I found no flaw in Fowler’s writing or style, I appreciate the author’s ability to recognize good material, and think a lot of people will really enjoy this piece. It wasn’t a good fit for me, but that doesn’t mean the story put forth is without merit.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 14, 2018

“Yet she understood a truth she could never say aloud: this ideal life was still deficient. She was not wholly content. Perhaps she should be, but contentment, she had learned, lay beyond money's considerable reach.”