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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer is as delightful as all her Regency Romances.

Abigail Wendover is a gentlewoman nearing spinsterhood living quietly with her significantly older sister in Bath. They are bringing up their spirited niece, Fanny, who is lovely, vivacious, and an heiress. Fanny is just seventeen and has not yet come out, but she has already attracted the attention of a fortune-hunter, Stacey Calverleigh.

Stacey is nearly thirty and quite broke. He was already disappointed in his hopes of financial rescue when an elopement with a different heiress was warded off. Now, he has set his sights on Fanny.

Abigail is horrified, especially since her older sister is unable to see through the odious man and finds him charming.

Stacey is not the only Calverleigh to appear in Bath. Stacey’s uncle, Miles, has returned from India, escorting the favored son of a local widow who was taken ill there. Miles had been banished to India twenty years earlier by his father and elder brother and was not expected to return. Miles is the black sheep of the family, a man whose lack of family feeling and numerous indiscretions have made him very suspect in the eyes of the ton. He is not particularly welcome in Bath. However, he and Abigail meet cute, a case of mistaken identity, and he is taken with her unconscious charm. She is taken with his sense of humor.

Abigail is determined to protect Fanny from Stacey. Miles listens, to a point, but insists the whole thing is tedious. He admits he dislikes his nephew, but says he has no influence to exert.

The courtship between Abigail and Miles is delightfully entertaining as their relationship develops based on enjoyment of time spent with one another rather than instantaneous profound passion. Miles supports her endeavors, even as he claims it is none of his business. Miles’ reputation may be in tatters for long ago sins, and, even now, he may not behave within the bounds of strictest respectability, but he nevertheless behaves well.

For lovers of "clean" old-fashioned Romance, Georgette Heyer never disappoints.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell

This has been a terrible summer for blogging. I have been reading, just not blogging. I’m currently trudging through a doorstop of a history book that I’ll review when I finally finish. I’ve broken that up with working my way through Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series. Two more to go!

In the meantime, I took a break to read a book in my Netgalley queue that was recently released.

(Thank you to Netgalley! I received the book for free. That did not influence my review.)

The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell is a multi-POV novel set in multiple time periods: early 1900s, WWII, and current day.

Because the early part of the book jumps around so much between characters and time periods, it’s hard to get engaged. In particular, the current day character, Cady, is introduced with both forward moving chapters and chapters that slip into her backstory. Perhaps it’s supposed to give the whirling up-and-down feeling of being on a carousel, but it was frustrating to read at first. The lack of cohesion got tedious. Eventually, the different stories intersected and the novel clicked. This is a novel that rewards patience as it draws to a close as a rich, emotional, multi-generational tale.

Cady Drake is a young female photographer who has difficulty connecting with people, largely due to her foster care upbringing. She was a troubled youth, who was fortunate to find stability living with an older woman, an antique store owner named Maxine. When Maxine dies, Cady is devastated. At the urging of her only friend, Cady embarks on a trip to Paris to photograph carousels for a coffee table book. This idea is inspired by the gift of an old carousel rabbit she had once received from Maxine. Inside the rabbit was a box with a photograph of a young woman from long ago, standing in front of a carousel. Cady becomes obsessed with learning who made the rabbit and the identity of the mysterious woman.

Maelle Tanguy is a young Breton woman in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. She is a talented sculptor who yearns to make carousel animals. She bravely sets out on her own to apprentice with Monsieur Bayol, the acknowledged master carver. Although he refuses to take her on at first, she impresses him with her spunkiness. He hires her to help his wife with housework, but gradually allows her to take on menial tasks in his workshop, and finally help make the animals. Unfortunately for Maelle, there is a handsome charmer in the workshop, Leon, and she is very gullible.

Finally, there is Fabrice Clement from Provence. During WWII, he was a young resistance fighter in Paris. He survived, barely, to become a writer known for difficult post-modern novels in the war’s aftermath. He then retired to an inherited, falling-apart chateau back in Provence, where he became a cranky recluse.

Fabrice’s chateau was once known for a carousel built for its aristocratic owners by the master Bayol. And, this is the carousel in the photograph Cady found in her rabbit. Maelle is the woman in the photo.

There is a good deal of mystery surrounding all these elements. And the author does a lovely job of piecing it all together. Cady blossoms in France as she never could in her California home.

The novel also beautifully describes the carousel making process in fascinating detail.

I tend to enjoy these types of multi-period novels less than historical novels that follow a more chronological plot line. I don’t like having the flow of a narrative interrupted so frequently. I’m not thrown off by different POV characters so long as their stories are moving in the same direction at the same time, but when the stories are all unconnected for too long, even when I can see that they will eventually connect, I lose patience. That said, I’m glad I stuck with this one until it all came together to its satisfying conclusion.