Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical
The Vanderbilt family is one of the great success stories in American history. Author Therese Fowler picks up the line with the third generation in her novel, A Well-Behaved Woman. The woman in question is Alva Smith—a 21-year-old with a perfect pedigree, but no money. Teetering, in fact, on the edge of outright poverty, until her dear friend Consuelo (a Cuban sugar heiress), throws her in front of the eligible Vanderbilt grandson, William. The Vanderbilts have the money, but New York society is closed to them because they are newly rich and considered vulgar. The plan works and Alva joins the family and gives them the gloss they need to move in the circles they want. In return, she gets a life of luxury far beyond her greatest dreams. But is it enough?
Fowler’s debut novel, Z, was about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald and was combustible reading. Comparisons between the two aren’t fair, mostly due to the times. Alva lived in the late 1800s, a time of restraint and manners. Zelda and F. Scott lived in the 1920s a time that was anything but restrained. So, if you’re expecting Zelda levels of drama, you’re going to be disappointed. Alva’s main goal in her marriage was being a good wife and promoting the Vanderbilt family. Also, to spend as much of their money in ways that were acceptable at the time and enhanced the family name. She accomplished this by working with renowned architects to build numerous homes and founding the Metropolitan Opera.
It’s in looking beyond Alva’s marriage that A Well-Behaved Woman lost me a bit. By midpoint in the novel there are a few mentions of a man she finds intriguing. They are so limited, crop up unexpectedly, and have virtually no detail to them that it’s hard to credit them as important feelings of passion. In reality, they are, but without getting into spoilers, the initial aspects of this relationship feels stilted. I realize the era was one of decorum, but this is fiction, so creative license is expected and would have gone a long way towards making Alva’s feelings more relatable, less manufactured
Her personal life aside, I wanted more of the later years of Alva’s life. It isn’t until the novel is 80% over that she comes into her own and becomes a supporter of causes far outside the comfort zone of her society friends. A Well-Behaved Woman is a successful chronicle of the highs and lows of Alva’s life, with enough details about her exorbitant expenses to satisfy even the biggest fan of conspicuous consumption. And while it didn’t go as far into her inner life or outer activities as I would have liked there is no doubt this well-behaved woman was so much more than a woman who married well.