Official Synopsis from Goodreads: 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 a box 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…
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1874-1908 Manhattan
***I received an eARC copy of A Well-Behaved Woman from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, via NetGalley***
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Review: An interesting read that should’ve been more compelling than it was. A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler follows the life of Alva Vanderbilt, the lady who catapulted the Vanderbilt family to social acceptance and prominence. The book begins as Alva, whose family has lost all their money due to the Civil War, is searching for a rich husband to help her family out. Alva had the respected name, the lineage, and the social know-how to assist the Vanderbilt family, who was “new money”, gain acceptance into society. A Well-Behaved Woman follows this struggle to gain that society acceptance, and also Alva’s struggle to know herself and her desires.
Alva is strong willed and intelligent, and can quickly grasp a situation and know how to handle herself. But there was something hollow about Alva. I admired her ability to say what she’s thinking and get ahead in a time when that was not acceptable, but I didn’t much like her. She’s a bit too know-it-all and judgmental, while focusing entirely on the outward appearance. And then she would complain about her situation, which was frustrating to read. She makes her choices, and then she complains about them. She lived a fascinating life, and the history and opulence here is fascinating to read, but at the same time you know people are starving in the streets, so there’s that awful juxtaposition where Alva does charity work, but then spends gobs of money on clothes, parties, and travel. Alva’s definitely a character who inspires conversation, whether it be about her choices to her lifestyle to her inability to see what is so clearly staring her in the face.
Another character in A Well-Behaved Woman is Oliver Belmont, who has long been an admirer of Alva. He’s a good friend of Alva’s husband, William Vanderbilt, and I liked Oliver. He seemed genuine and caring, and he was a good contrast to William, who I could not stand at all. This is a good tale of how money can corrupt, as we witness William’s change from an eager young man to an entitled, arrogant older gentleman. There was one scene involving a boating accident that really angered me.
Because I didn’t quite connect with the characters I didn’t find A Well-Behaved Woman as compelling as it should have been. While the plot clipped along and was informative historically, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was no substance to the characters. If you do an Internet search on Alva Vanderbilt, you’ll see that there are many mentions of her being a suffragette and her contributions to women getting the right to vote. A Well-Behaved Woman does not really touch on this, as the book ends right as she begins to get involved in the movement. I would’ve like to have read about her involvement there, and so felt a bit let down that the book focused more on her romances and her wealth. But overall A Well-Behaved Woman was definitely a fascinating read that held my interest and has a strong female lead who inspires conversation.
Bottom Line: Historically full of fascinating information, but the characters felt hollow.