REVIEW: A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

In brief: The story of Alva Vanderbilt and how she married into the famous family and lived her life.

The good: Incredibly interesting (and so tempting to look up on the internet what happened next)

The not-so-good: The amount of fighting Alva had to do to be recognised.

Why I chose it: Really enjoyed Z, and getting to explore another historical figure through great historical fiction. Thanks Hachette for the copy!

Year: 2018

Pages: 392

Publisher: Two Roads Books (Hachette)

Setting: Primarily the USA

Rating: 9 out of 10

The Vanderbilt name is one I’ve heard but not really known the details about (besides being American and incredibly rich). I know I can rely on Therese Anne Fowler to write an entertaining and historically accurate story, so what better way to learn about Alva Vanderbilt? I loved Z (about Zelda Fitzgerald) so I was really looking forward to reading A Well-Behaved Woman. It did not disappoint!

The story starts when Alva was Alva Smith, a member of a well-respected family that was also incredibly poor. With an invalid father and dead mother, the Smith girls try to maintain an air of capability but things are looking dire. Alva is practical, and incredibly smart. She knows that the only way to save her family is to marry well and to marry rich. At this time, the Vanderbilts were looked down upon in New York society for being nouveau riche, having made a fortune in railways (relatively new at the time). What better way to entice them with the one thing they don’t have – a good name? Alma and her friend Consuelo conspire and ultimately, she is married to William Vanderbilt. Alva’s unspoken role in her new family is to bring the Vanderbilts into society. With her shrewd wit and calculations of what society values, plus help from those in the know, she elevates the Vanderbilts into becoming part of the New York they crave. But it takes a lot of money, and love is sacrificed so that both Alva and the Vanderbilts can get what they want. Is it enough?

Alva reads as an incredibly intelligent woman to me with little output for her talents in a world where women were primarily thought of as pretty decorations and baby makers. Alva’s determination and individuality makes her stand out within the family and in society. She designs houses, leads the family to new ideas and says what she thinks. She is a modern-day girl, passionate for the vote and women’s rights, tightly bound by the rules of regulations of her time. Alva does fight continually against conforming to society’s wants, whether it be a creative dress for a ball to hide her lack of money to asking for a divorce. Alva reads people very well to get what she wants – no, deserves. (Although when guiding her daughter into marriage, I think she would have come across as very controlling).

My biggest problem with this book was trying not to Google Alva to find out what happened next! I found all aspects of her life fascinating and the plot was well paced, focusing on Alva’s highs and lows. I felt that Alva’s happiness later in life and the subsequent pain of loss and deceit were palpable. The descriptions of life for the wealthy in that time period were detailed as were the details of the Vanderbilt mansions. Overall, I enjoyed A Well-Behaved Woman as it gave me insight into an influential woman who may not have been on my radar otherwise.


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