Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of Alva Vanderbilt by Therese Ann Fowler

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a well behaved


“What is it that drives some men to such poor behavior? We accept their behavior because of what would happen if we didn’t”.

After I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, I knew I had to read more of Therese Fowler’s work. I have a huge fascination with the gilded age/jazz era, so I jump at the chance to read anything new about this dazzling time period. I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing about the Vanderbilt’s, and left with enough knowledge that I felt comfortable talking about Alva and her courageous acts against proper society.

The novel begins with Alva as a young girl. Her family had lost what money they had due to her father’s habits, and she was left to manage her sisters on her own.  Thankfully, her mother brought her daughters to Paris and made sure they were fit for society before she died. From a young age, Alva knew she had to marry into wealth – it wasn’t even a question that she must provide for her family. After realizing she wasn’t in love with any man she met, she settled on William Vanderbilt, thus marrying into what would be the richest family in 19th century America.

Her strong wit and character wasn’t apparent at first. She tried to make William as happy as she could, but she was never in love with him. She became a mother of three children, and found a love of architecture that would soon lead to many famous houses such as the Petit Chateau, the Marble House and eventually the Beacon Towers in New York.

Throughout the novel you are thrown into the many lavish parties and gatherings of this era, and you will soak up the drama that was just another normal day in rich society. I couldn’t get enough of the gossip between women – it is similar to the gossip of today, but with much, much more at stake. A woman’s reputation was EVERYTHING.

The novel takes a turn when a scandal happens between Alva and her husband. I won’t give too much away, but this is definitely the point where Alva digs her heels in and stands for what she believes in… and that is a woman’s right to respect (and divorce). This is the point where I started to really become engrossed with the novel. It was as if Alva finally realized that money would never equal happiness.

“She could not right the nation’s troubles. So she would drink julep and let the breeze cool her and eat her peas with a knife and honey if she pleased”.

Alva’s decisions caused her to become shunned by most of society – but fortunately her young daughter Consuela was spared. She did not want her to become another girl in a loveless marriage, which would be tough considering she was one of the richest heiresses in the country. The love between mother and daughter becomes very apparent at the end of the novel and was a joy to read.

I really loved this novel. It’s hard to come across books like this where the history of the main character isn’t overdone already. This will be one of my 2018 favorites for sure.

Thank you to Netgalley for an ARC of this book. This title comes out in October 2018.

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