Monday, January 21, 2019

Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

Pages: 400
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: October 16, 2018
Publisher: St. Martin's
Source: Publisher for review
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt's Fifth Ave. costume ball--a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family's good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva's bestfriend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths--and elevated the Vanderbilts.  From outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball--no mere amusement--wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.  But how much of ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? --There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.  And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who's hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?  Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England's most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There's only one way to know for certain... "

Alva Smith grew up in Alabama with her parents who were, at one point, well off. But all that has changed. Her father's heath took a nose dive and is now bankrupt. It's up to Alva to save her family by marrying well.  Her mother brought her up to be not only well-educated, but worldly too.  Her best friend, Conseulo Yznaga, an heiress, encourages her to go to a ball in order to secure someone with money.  And she does.  William K. Vanderbilt, from the famous Vanderbilt family, is interested in her and things are looking up for Alva.  Why would William look her way? Well, his family, even though they have a ton of money, aren't well-liked in society as they are new money.  If he marries Alva, his chances of being received by the old money crowd are great.  But Alva has her work cut out for her as Caroline Astor won't even acknowledge her presence.  So what's a woman to do? Well, build and design the most luxurious mansion New York has ever seen and so much more.  Alva is a force to be reckoned with.  Therese Anne Fowler's A Well-Behaved Woman is so much more than a novel about Gilded Age New York. Alva is an inspiration even to women today.

Right from the beginning, Alva leaped off the page for me in A Well-Behaved Woman.  She's smart, determined, charming, and a future feminist. What's not to like?  I was rooting for her from the beginning as her family truly needs some help.  I can't imagine the pressure of knowing your family's future lies in your hands, so she better marry well.  Once she does marry, as we all know that she does, things change for Alva in that she is extremely well off financially, but the problems are still there. Her loveless marriage, the issues with not truly being accepted in society, her judgmental sister-in-law, her budding feelings towards her husband's best friend, and the bigger issue of how to make her mark in society.  I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Alva, especially towards the second half of the novel when she really comes into her own.

I loved learning about the Vanderbilts during Gilded Age New York. I always thought they ran society, so it was interesting to learn about how they wedged their way in and secured a position.  I loved following along as Alva designed eye-catching mansions, the lavish parties she threw and how she expertly handled the inevitable bumps in the road that headed her way.  Fowler displays all the intricacies of society during that time, the social games they would play, and it was truly fascinating.

What impressed me so much regarding A Well-Behaved Woman  was the fact that I thought this was going to be about balls, society, money and more money. It was so much more than that. In fact, I was so happy to learn that Alva made an important mark on society with her feminist view points. I had no idea that she was such a big supporter of women's causes!

If you love historical fiction and stories about interesting women from the time period definitely give A Well-Behaved Woman  a try this winter.  It had everything I like in a great historical novel: the glittering setting of Gilded Age New York along with a heroine whom I admired greatly.


  1. I've always been curious about the Vanderbilts, but I didn't know this book is about them. It's great to learn about feminism at a time when you think that's a laughable movement.

    1. Right? I was pleasantly surprised by her forward thinking....definitely appreciate her more now! Thanks for visiting, Joy!

  2. Alva was such an amazing woman! Really ahead of her time.

    1. She really was! I was pleasantly surprised! Thanks for dropping by, Angela!

  3. Yay! I'm glad you enjoyed this one too :) I was mesmerized - Alva was so much ahead of her time! And after loving this one so much, I really want to read the author's other biographical novel - Z - about another figure I don't know well (or at all, haha). Not to mention ALL THE VANDERBILT books! :)

    1. She really was. It was a pleasant surprise for me as I had no clue just how forward thinking she was in a time period that was so rigid. I have a copy of Z on my Kindle. Will have to read that one next! And yes, I am definitely intrigued by the Vanderbilts now. You'll have to recommend some more novels! Thanks for visiting, Rebecca.


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