Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Well-Behaved Woman

Title:  A Well-Behaved Woman:  A Novel of the Vanderbilts
Author:  Therese Anne Fowler
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250095476 / 978-1250095473

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When they asked her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredation, 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 desparate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out."

Favorite Quote:  "... a change in fortune doesn't change who a person is. It reveals your true self, the one you were maybe hiding away."

The well-behaved woman of the title is Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva Smith was the name she was born with. Vanderbilt was the name she married into, and Belmont came later. While Smith may not be a recognized name, the Vanderbilt and Belmont names have both provided this nation with a legacy. Alva is a part of that legacy, with a contribution all her own.

This book is part of a growing trend of fictionalizing the lives of actual historical figures. The books don't simply reference historical characters. They create an image of what that life may have been like. Rule #1 of reading these books is to always remember that the books are not biographies. They are not history. They are a carefully crafted fiction - an author's imaginings of conversations and emotions and of events of which there may be no history. Typically, the works are researched so as to be based in history, but they are not history.

What I love about historical fiction is that it sends me in search of the history. I likely would never have picked up a biography of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. This fiction though did set me reading briefly about her actual life. What I learned is fascinating. Alva's legacy finds a home in the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument in Washington DC. Alva was a notable member of the National Woman's Party, which was active in promoting the women's suffragette movement and critical in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I learned most of this from researching nonfictional sources about Alva's life but unfortunately not this book. The book does get there but late and only briefly. The bulk of this fictional story focuses on Alva's life as a young woman, her quest to marry William Vanderbilt, and their married life. It speaks to a life of poverty and a determined, concerted effort to emerge from that life through the way open to women at that time - marriage. It is about a marriage with its conveniences, its compromises, and its betrayals. It speaks to the gilded age of New York city, the lifestyles of the rich, and the glamorous homes they built. It is about the navigation and machinations to achieve and maintain a social strata and pecking order if you will.

I do wish the focus of the book had been flipped. It ends almost as Alva's true contribution to this nation's history begins. This story takes the history of a strong woman and makes it about money and marriage rather than work. It does lead me to research and learn about that contribution but unfortunately fails to capture it in the book itself. Interesting but leaves a lot missing.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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