Summary and book reviews of A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

A Well-Behaved Woman

A Novel of the Vanderbilts

by Therese Anne Fowler

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler X
A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
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  • Published:
    Oct 2018, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan

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Book Summary

The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Alva Smith, her southern family destitute after the Civil War, married into one of America's great Gilded Age dynasties: the newly wealthy but socially shunned Vanderbilts. Ignored by New York's old-money circles and determined to win respect, she designed and built 9 mansions, hosted grand balls, and arranged for her daughter to marry a duke. But Alva also defied convention for women of her time, asserting power within her marriage and becoming a leader in the women's suffrage movement.

With a nod to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, in A Well-Behaved Woman Therese Anne Fowler paints a glittering world of enormous wealth contrasted against desperate poverty, of social ambition and social scorn, of friendship and betrayal, and an unforgettable story of a remarkable woman. Meet Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, living proof that history is made by those who know the rules - and how to break them.

I

WHEN THEY ASKED her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredations, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts—when they asked why she did the extreme things she'd done, Alva said it all began quite simply: Once there was a desperate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out. It was 1874. Summertime. She was twenty-one years old, ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch.

* * *

"Stay together now, girls," Mrs. Harmon called as eight young ladies, cautiously clad in plain day dresses and untrimmed hats, left the safety of two carriages and gathered like ducklings in front of the tenement. The buildings were crowded and close here, the narrow street's bricks caked with horse dung, pungent in the afternoon heat. Soiled, torn mattresses and broken furniture and rusting cans littered the alleys. Coal smoke hung in the stagnant air. Limp laundry drooped on...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I can't say that A Well-Behaved Woman is absolutely perfect, but it does come very close. Fowler's writing style is very open, honest and absorbing, so despite its slightly extended length, I became so immediately and fully involved in the story that I practically whizzed through the pages. However, I believe there were some areas (although they were few and far between) that could have been cut out, or cut down, that might have made the narrative more cohesive and consistent. In addition, I had hoped that more of Ava's later years of life would have been included, but the ending, including the afterword and author's note, make up for that –they are just as well written and very important to read, so please don't skip them. These niggles, however, aren't enough for me to lower my rating from a full five stars, and I honestly enjoyed this book and can warmly recommend it to lovers of historical fiction about women.   (Reviewed by Davida Chazan).

Full Review Members Only (547 words).

Media Reviews

Booklist
With you-are-there immediacy fueled by assured attention to biographical detail and deft weaving of labyrinthine intrigue, Fowler (Z, 2014) creates a thoroughly credible imagining of the challenges and emotional turmoil facing this fiercely independent woman.

Library Journal
Fowler (Exposure) ably portrays the excesses of the Gilded Age but falls short in her avowed attempt to counteract Alva's reputation as an ambitious social climber. Expect high demand from fans of the author's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and those who enjoy stories of the rich and famous.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Genius....Though the novel's lavish sweep and gorgeous details evoke a vanished world, Fowler's exploration of the way powerful women are simultaneously devalued and rewarded resonates powerfully.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Nothing short of mesmerizing.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin
Alva provides a fascinating prism for the challenges and pleasures of era, and is endlessly engrossing as a character, full of action and vision and will - just the sort of woman I love knowing more about. I dare you not to dive right in.

Author Blurb Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author of The Perfect Couple
Oh how I loved every instant I spent in the world Fowler has recreated here. The story of Alva Vanderbilt is elegantly and empathetically told. Prepare to be enthralled!

Author Blurb Chris Bohjalian, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of The Flight Attendant
A Well-Behaved Woman is a gem: a fascinating tale of Gilded Age manners and mores, and one remarkable woman's attempts to transcend them. Therese Anne Fowler, the immensely gifted writer who gave us all new insights into Zelda Fitzgerald in her novel, Z, has done it again for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont.

Author Blurb Christina Baker Kline, New York Times bestselling author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train
History comes alive in this immensely readable novel...A Well-Behaved Woman is an extraordinary portrait of a strong, fascinating woman who rose above societal convention and even her own expectations to become so much more than anyone might have predicted.

Author Blurb Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Girls in the Picture
The story of Alva Vanderbilt is long overdue for a telling, but it was worth the wait. Therese Anne Fowler has brought this compelling, complex woman to such dynamic life that she leaps off the pages. This is a delicious book, as well as a timely one.

Author Blurb Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club
In another writer's hands, Alva Vanderbilt's immense wealth and carefully calculated life might have proved barriers to readerly sympathy. But Fowler's portrait is so nuanced, so complicated by context, and so informed by her own capacious generosity that we can't help being drawn in...This is a wonderful book!

Author Blurb Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World
Not just breathtakingly alive, but dazzlingly and profoundly timely. A must-read masterpiece.

Author Blurb Sarah McCoy, New York Times and international bestselling author of Marilla of Green Gables and The Baker's Daughter
A sparkling, powerful story that needs to be heard now more than ever.

Author Blurb Allison Pataki, New York Times Bestselling author of The Accidental Empress
Fowler's heroine is drawn with care and complexity, a woman of exquisite taste and depth, and one who dares to dream beyond the stifling role which society has assigned her.

Reader Reviews

Becky H

Money isn't eveything, but it helps
Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont was anything but a well- behaved woman. Left near-penniless as she approached marriageable age in the 1870’s, she set her aim for a wealthy man. William Vanderbilt, a younger son in the ultra-wealthy but socially ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

New York Society in the Gilded Age

Caroline AstorMost of the first half of Therese Anne Fowler's A Well-Behaved Woman focuses on Alva Vanderbilt's efforts to break into New York society, which was ruled by a small group of families during what is known as the Gilded Age (1870s-1900). The doyenne of New York society at the time was Caroline Astor who, aided by Ward McAllister, a Savannah-born self-appointed arbiter of high society, not only codified what was considered proper behavior but also who was acceptable in their high society. Ward McAllister is best remembered today for coining the term "The Four Hundred" when he declared that there were "only 400 people in fashionable New York Society." This made me wonder about the rivalry between Alva and Caroline, and the ...

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