A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
The wealth of the Vanderbilt family was astounding both in their day and by today’s standards, even if one never takes inflation into account. Back in the late 1800s, that should have meant something. However, all it meant was that they had mounds of money, because their family hadn’t lived in America enough generations for them to be accepted into New York’s high society. Alva Smith, on the other hand, had the appropriate lineage and standing, but her family’s fortune was ravaged by the Civil War and were on the brink of starvation. Although the subtitle of this book is “A Novel of the Vanderbilts” Fowler’s latest novel is really more Alva’s story than that of a whole family.
I must state that the first thing I liked about this book is how Fowler paced this novel. Fowler starts out by describing how Alva succeeded in getting a marriage proposal out of William K. Vanderbilt (which felt a bit unlikely, but not impossible). Afterwards, she goes into their marriage and how Alva succeeded in wrangling the much-needed recognition of New York’s #1 socialite, Caroline Astor. That event – a costume ball – happens smack dab in the middle of this novel. This allowed Fowler to use the rest of the book to delve onto a large chunk of Alva’s life, which continues through to the early part of the 20th century.
The way Fowler portrays Alva is very special indeed. On the one hand, as the story begins, we almost feel that Fowler feels sorry for Alva. As the years go by, we notice that there are many conflicting things about Alva, so that sometimes we believe that Fowler wasn’t all that pleased with the woman she was writing about. Fowler draws us a woman of great intelligence and inner strength, who also has a level of generosity, warmth and grace, making Alva into a force to be reckoned with. Fowler also allows us to see a side of Alva’s personality that is less than demure, who can also be self-centered, if not sometimes spoiled. With this, Fowler was able to assume certain things about Alva that history would never record, such as the passionate side of her personality (both physical and emotional), which she would have needed to keep repressed. Of course, this makes the title of the book a bit ironic, seeing as she didn’t always behave the way her world would have preferred.
This means that by the time we get to the end of the book, we can see just how much Fowler fell in love with Alva, while allowing her readers to come to their own conclusions regarding her strengths and flaws. Fowler also imbues Alva with good measures of wit and cynicism, resulting in several instances of dialogue that made me laugh! Add to all of this a very honest, open and absorbing writing style, which despite the length of this work, grabbed me so fully that I can easily call this a real “page turner,” which is usually reserved for adventure and crime novels.
That said, there were a few scenes that I would have cut out, or at least pared down, which might have added a touch more consistency and cohesion to this work, but I understand why they were left in, and they didn't disturb the flow of the narrative. In addition, there were times when I wondered if Fowler slightly misrepresented William Vanderbilt in her portrayal. It seemed to me that there was the potential for him to have been more loving of Alva, if she had just given him a chance. While this could have been on purpose (or historically accurate), it did make me think that Alva might have had a hand in her own unhappiness, and perhaps also in William’s infidelity. Finally, had hoped that Fowler would give us more of Alva’s later life, where her efforts to obtain women’s suffrage would be detailed, but the afterward and author’s notes made up for that in spades (and I request, nay demand, that you read every last well written word).
I cannot add anything more to this review except my kudos to Fowler for painting such a three-dimensional portrait of Alva, who is ultimately human and truly realistic and whose many flaws did nothing to diminish her many admirable qualities. If this is the kind of women’s historical fiction you generally enjoy, I’m thinking that there are few, if any, better examples than this novel. This is why I’m wholeheartedly recommending this and giving it a full five out of five stars, since I honestly enjoyed every minute of reading this book.
St. Martin's Press will release "A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts" by Therese Anne Fowler on October 16, 2018. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.