A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts
By Therese Anne Fowler
From the bestselling author of Z – a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Fowler’s new novel goes back to the origins of the Jazz Age – the Gilded Age of New York Society in the late 19th/early 20th century – with the page-turning and sympathetic account of Alva Vanderbilt, the woman who challenged New York Society.Tweet
I started reading this with great hopes of a good read. Unfortunately I really struggled with the concept of a fictionalised account of real life events, and this ever present fact spoiled my enjoyment of the book.
The book is a fascinating history of a very determined woman during the Gilded Age. The book group all enjoyed this story and found it really interesting, so much in fact, that several members did further reading online to discover more about the Vanderbilts. The evocative period detail adds to the narrative and there are wonderful descriptions of the clothes, the mansions, the food and the way of life during this time period.
This book chronicles the progression of Alva Smith, the daughter of a prominent, but financially failing southern family. It covers her life from near poverty to unbelievable wealth, and highlights her key role in raising the social standing of the nouveau-riche Vanderbilt family (of railroad fame) from shunned obscurity to prominence in New York in the late 19th century.
Alva demonstrates skill in identifying and aligning herself with powerful allies in pursuit of her various goals; which include “successful” marriages and her ultimate success as the “supreme hostess of New York”.
The closely factual story line is interesting, informative and relatively fast moving; it concludes as Alva is endeavouring to champion the suffragette movement in the USA and the lot of African American women.
I would have liked to have a bit more information about Alva’s sister Adeline. However, the story was well-researched and was a glimpse into New York lifestyle during a fascinating era.
Alva Vanderbilt was a prominent member of the excessively wealthy Vanderbilt Dynasty, marrying into the family in order to improve her financial situation which was, at the time, dire. The Vanderbilts had money, but they were shunned by New York’s elite. They were desperate to find a way to be accepted by the likes of the Astors and their contemporaries. Alva’s credentials for the “job” were the social status which her family held in New York’s society, despite ever diminishing means. Alva was considered by many to be calculating, haughty and opinionated. Therese Anne Fowler (the author) interprets her actions in a more sympathetic way as we follow the life of this prominent American socialite.
I have no doubt that this is a well researched book and that it is, in essence, as accurate a portrayal of Alva Vanderbilt as it is possible to write. It is however a work of biographical fiction and it is difficult to know how much of the writing is speculation and how much is gleaned from the known facts (which, according to the author, are fairly sparse). As this is not a subject matter which interests me particularly, I think the author did a good job of keeping me interested enough to want to keep reading. The last few pages were very powerful and very moving, so much so that I rather unexpectedly found myself shedding a tear.
On the downside, whilst I was never actually bored, this is hardly a gripping read. It is difficult for me to be completely impartial as biographies have never been one of my favourite genres. In addition, I had no particular interest in the upper strata of American (or British for that matter) society.
This is the first book I have read by this author and whilst I would read another of hers, I would not actively seek them out. It is probably very interesting if you have a particular interest in the Vanderbilts.
Our book club thought this was a well written, interesting and enjoyable book. Although none of the characters were particularly likeable their stories were engrossing. The realities of the class system in America at that point in time – late 19th early 20th centuries – was a surprise to us as we had not expected that it was as important as it appears to have been. We were also surprised at how the women seemed to run the society with men appearing to just provide the money. Some of Alva’s actions in relation to her daughter seemed at odds with her later disregard for societal norms and her fervent belief and activism in the women’s suffrage movement but these sorts of contradictions in terms of what women are expected to do and what they really want to do still exist of course. Altogether an interesting and enjoyable read and we gave it a mark of 7 out of 10.