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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

I grew up surrounded by Vanderbilt, as my father is now a retired professor at the University. While no actual Vanderbilt family member ever visited the school (at least during its founding era, I'm not saying ever), I still have always had a great affinity towards the Robber Barons in general and the Vanderbilts in particular (although a while ago I did realize that people who works with Robber Barons blanch at that term and prefer to refer to them as "Gilded Age." Which yes, is nicer, but perhaps less accurate?)

So this is a novel about Alva Vanderbilt. She grew up poor but dignified, and they got poorer as both of her parents' health failed. After her mother's death, shortly before her father's, she decided that either she had to marry well, or she and her three sisters would have to get jobs, which women in their family just did not do, and which would permanently change their class. With the help of her best friend, Alva snags W.K. Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius aka The Commodore (it was a nickname not a military position.) Now this was not just a poor girl marrying a rich boy to better her family. It was certainly a mutual arrangement. For all the Vanderbilts' money (or perhaps, almost because of it), they were shunned by New York Society. Whereas Alva Smith was accepted, coming from a family that dated themselves back to the 1600s in American, and which had always been respectable. So the quid pro quo was that Alva would get all the money in the world, and she would work to finagle the Vanderbilts into Society and rehabilitate the family name and varnish it with some class. All of this is accomplished, although not without some bumps. Along the way, she has several children, W.K. buys a couple of yachts, some older Vanderbilts die, Alva builds an impressive house on Fifth Avenue and then a more impressive one in Newport, Rhode Island. As the Gilded Age ticks along, she begins to feel ennui--is this all there is? Yachting and parties and making sure her daughter made a good marriage. Was this the purpose to her life? Or is there more?

Suffice it to say, yes, but you'll have to read the book to find out how she makes changes and what sorts of changes those are, to make her life more meaningful and happier. This book feels spot-on with the details of the era. I looked up some things like photos of the Fifth Avenue house and it's impressive. I wish there'd been more about her sisters--I get the impression that her older sister might be gay, and much later it's mentioned that at least one of her younger sisters made a good marriage, but they just vanish more or less. It seems they are in the city as well and even if she didn't hang out with them regularly, surely she saw them on rare occasions. Oh well. Her relationship with her African-American ladies maid was nice--and fascinating that the wealthy people in that time would not have any people of color as servants. Because Alva's family had until recently been Southern slave-holders, they were actually more comfortable with African-Americans. That's something my mother mentioned to me decades ago as she also lived in both regions growing up--she felt that racism was more subtle but more pervasive in the North in certain ways, and she thought unfamiliarity with African-Americans was the primary cause. Ms. Fowler seems to have come to the same conclusion.

The book is filled with fabulous gowns and trips to Europe and amazing architecture, so if you love all this, this book has it in droves. But it is deeper than that--Alva is not gilded. She is actual gold (or maybe silver but she's an actual precious metal, not a superficial imitation of one.) A fascinating and multi-layered story of a woman who lived in an interesting time with interesting people and who made some interesting decisions. A fun read for us history lovers.

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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