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A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler. Book review

January 25, 2019

a well-behaved woman

Alva Smith might have come from a family with all the right social credentials, but the Civil War left them financially ruined and living hand to mouth, while struggling to keep up appearances. For such an impoverished, gentile family, the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilts offered salvation in the form of William Kissam, their second son. For the Vanderbilts, Alva’s genealogy was expected to bring the outcasts into the social fold. Even so it took every ounce of Alva’s adroit manoeuvring to ensure a successful marriage and then to curry favour for her husband’s family with Caroline Astor, the doyenne of New York society. But, as a woman of great determination and a passion for inclusive suffrage the course of her life was never going to run smoothly.

The narrative is full of wonderful prose and wicked humour, of the kind which exudes the atmosphere of the daintiest of tea dances where the participants are all smiles, but whose practiced feet lash out under their full skirts to trip up those who threaten to unseat them from their rightful place in the delicately balanced societal food chain.

Alva Vanderbilt was a master at avoiding this tactic and giving as good as she got, which was just as well considering she married into a family thought so vulgar by gentile New York society that they were to be shunned at all costs. However, with Alva’s skilful interventions the Vanderbilts became a force to be reckoned with.

But she was a woman ahead of her time and her progressive views did not sit well with her in-laws, forcing her into direct opposition and into conflict with her children.

Yet she was a paradox in that for all her passion for suffrage she manipulated her daughter, Consuela (named after her closest friend), into an advantageous marriage, which was also an emotional disaster for the young woman.

And yet Alva’s own marriage as well as that of her daughter’s merely highlighted the only currency that young women of breeding had at that time to make their way in the world, namely their child producing capabilities, and trading either their family’s money for social connections or vice versa.

This book skilfully charts the intrigues, society’s ruthless ostracism of someone challenging the system through divorce, and how that individual reinvented themselves. The fiction follows the real-life events meticulously. I spent a great deal of time putting down the book to explore online a great deal of the details extending out from Alva’s life into the modern day, before picking it up again and relishing where her actions still rippled out into the world today.

Therese Anne Fowler’s skilful layering of both the detailed descriptions of the surroundings, people and lifestyles read like a modern-day boardroom war, while her handling of what could have resulted in nothing more than a sensationalist blockbuster, really delved into the psychologies of the combatants in a way which both inform and make a compelling story. The result is an immersive read, and one in which no matter how well you know the story of the Vanderbilts forces you to hold your breath in anticipation when a key event unfolds.

A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts was courtesy of Two Roads via NetGalley.



One Comment
  1. Great review! I really like this one too.

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