Tuesday, October 23, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Well-Behaved Woman. A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, has a new book – A Well-Behaved Woman. A Novel of the Vanderbilts.

In late nineteenth-century New York, Alva Smith is a desperate young woman. Reared with her sisters to expect a life of privilege, at twenty-one she discovers how tenuous her hold on that privilege is. She comes from Old South wealth and her pedigree is impeccable, but her mother is dead and her ailing father is nearly bankrupt. Alva needs to marry well and soon.

Despite her initial concerns, she catches a husband with surprising ease. William Vanderbilt, grandson of the railway tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, is looking for a well-connected wife to help the family climb the New York social ladder. He is good-looking, easy-going, and shallow enough to marry simply to please his family. Alva’s connections are not as good as the Vanderbilts believe them to be, but Alva does a grand job faking it. Her fortune is secured, her family saved. Now, she has to live with the consequences.

The novel whisks us along on a tour of the extraordinary pursuits of the obscenely wealthy. Alva has come close enough to ruin to feel some compassion for the plight of the poor. She does invest time and money in charitable programs. But her main occupation is Society. She is determined to cement her position within the Vanderbilt hierarchy by raising the profile of the Vanderbilt family name. With the help of an older gentleman friend, insider Ward McAllister, Alva navigates the difficult waters of society, dominated by Caroline Astor, until the Vanderbilts can no longer be excluded from the upper echelons.

Successful as she is at social climbing, Alva is discontent. She does not respect or love her vapid husband. Conversation between them is merely polite. Sex is an undignified chore. And William spends more time on his boat or with his friends than he does with his wife. At least, he claims to be with friends. Alva remains willfully blind to his many affairs.

Intelligent and driven, Alva throws herself into architectural pursuits, partnering with architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a number of mansions costing millions of dollars.

Eventually, none of this is enough. Alva wants love and passion. And Alva tends to get what she wants.

This novel immerses the reader in Gilded Age society, showing its mores, extravagances, and hypocrisies as well as its preoccupation with absurd shades of status. Alva is drawn as a well rounded character, but it is difficult to sympathize with her. Although her husband’s true character is not at all admirable, he is, in some limited way, pitiable. Alva puts him off from the get-go, having achieved the financial security she desires. She never gives the marriage a chance. It may have been more poignant had she tried and failed.

The book skims more lightly over Alva’s attempts to do good for the less fortunate. More emphasis on these pursuits may have made her a more sympathetic protagonist, but the emphasis on her attempts to spend an unspendable amount of money upstaging her society rivals is likely a more realistic portrait.

A Well-Behaved Woman is a compelling, richly detailed historical novel showing lifestyles of the rich and famous in the Gilded Age. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is an impressive book.