A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of The Vanderbilts
Therese Anne Fowler follows her bestselling novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald with A Well Behaved Woman, an encapsulation of the life of gilded age boundary breaker Alva Vanderbilt, exploring life in the early twentieth century and the way that climbing society’s social rungs can damage a person’s closest relationships.
Alva, born titled but with a spendthrift father, lives with the reality of his invalid status, their dwindling savings, her dead mother and the fact of having to support her two younger sisters. Alva sharpens her claws to keep herself from falling down the social ladder after a scarring experience in a tenement. Setting her sights on a loveless marriage to William K. Vanderbilt, she marries him and produces three children, immersing herself into improving the world for others while dealing with her husband’s duplicitous affairs and keeping up appearances. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with Oliver Belmont, a rugged naval hero and heir to the Belmont fortune, who’s everything William is not – and for her husband’s affairs to cause a scandal that will rock the foundation of her beliefs.
From the glittering 1874 ball that will win Alva a place in Newport society, to a life leading New York’s Suffragette movement, to the first double figure divorce settlement the upper crust ever saw, to the uncomfortable echo of history that was Alva forcing her daughter Consuelo to marry the only eligible British duke on the market for the sake of her social position, Alva’s life was busy, filled with strife – but rarely dull.
AAR Reviewers Lisa Fernandes and Shannon Dyer read A Well Behaved Woman, and got together to discuss their thoughts about the novel.
Lisa: After Fowler’s frankly disastrous take on Zelda Fitzgerald, I wasn’t about to give her much slack with this one. I at least found A Well Behaved Woman to be better researched. What did you think?
Shannon: I was fascinated with her take on Zelda Fitzgerald, but I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much. I do give Ms. Fowler props for doing her research, but the novel’s slow pace made it extremely difficult for me to stay invested in the story.
Lisa: It was, I think, about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. Did you like Alva, or did you find her to be slightly flanderised? This seems to be Fowler’s biggest problem as an author – forming historical figures into the people she wishes them to be, versus the way they really were. Still, I think she did a good job of catching Alva’s more mercenary qualities, even if she soft-sold the controversy surrounding Consuelo the Younger’s marriage. What did you think of her?
Shannon: I did like aspects of Alva’s character. I appreciated her determination to better the lives of those less fortunate than herself. It set her apart from most of the women of her time, and I’m a big fan of forward-thinking heroines. Having said that, some of Alva’s behavior was rather off-putting. It sometimes felt like she was sacrificing her own happiness and that of those around her on the altar of social class. I found her hypocritical at times as well. Of course, all well-drawn characters have obvious flaws and virtues, so I guess I have to give Ms. Fowler credit for that much at least. As to whether Alva’s character felt true to the flesh and blood woman, I can’t comment on that as I know next to nothing about her actual life.
Lisa: I’ve read an autobiography, so I’m confident in saying that I’m pretty sure the tenement incident never happened, so forming so much of her character development around that was a bit much. Fowler does a good job of reflecting the dog-eat-dog world of social climbing. Do you think she captured the era she was trying to portray well? As someone who’s familiar with Newport, the geography at least felt well-done.
Shannon: I think the author captured the era incredibly well. I didn’t always agree with society’s rules during the Gilded Age, but I found Ms. Fowler’s depiction of the time extremely well-done. It obviously wasn’t easy to stay at the top of the social game, and Alva’s machinations were honestly one of the best things about this novel.
Lisa: How about the supporting characters? I liked the first Consuelo the most out of all of them, but there was a large secondary cast. Did you find the invention of background characters annoying? Did you enjoy any of them?
Shannon: There were a ton of characters here, but not many of them really stood out for me. I did like Alva’s friend Ward, and I felt terrible about the way he was treated by the people who were supposedly his friends. I liked the glimpses we were given of Mary, but I would have liked to see her character fleshed out a bit more.
Lisa: That’s the trouble with writing a novel about someone who’s long-lived; you have to pick and choose between what’s a memorable incident and what’s not. We have two romances going on in this novel – Alva’s all but arranged marriage to William, which is bloodless (he was a total jerk), and her affair of the heart with Oliver. What do you think each romance said about Alva? How did you like Oliver and Alva’s loosely built forbidden romance? Did you agree with the author’s choice to ignore the evidence that Alva was also cheating during this time period?
Shannon: I really didn’t care for William much at all, and although I understood what prompted Alva to marry him, I always thought it would have been better for her on a number of levels had she been able to make a different choice. Their marriage was strictly one of convenience, and it showed. Alva’s relationship with Oliver was better, but we didn’t actually see that much of it. It felt like the novel slowly built up to it, but it fell flat once they were actually together. We were told how much Alva loved Oliver, but I never felt like I actually saw that for myself.
Lisa: What of the children? Did you enjoy them?
Shannon: I didn’t have strong feelings about Alva’s children one way or the other. With the exception of Consuelo, we didn’t get to know much about them. They were always around, but their characters were never fully developed.
Lisa: The twins in particular felt like caricatures waiting for their personalities to be filled in. Setting Alva up to be a human dividing line between the poor and the rich was… interesting. Using Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont of all people as a paragon of tolerance felt a little odd, and the dichotomy between her wanting to help the poor and being petrified of BECOMING poor made you think. But suffragettes were sadly not known for their racial or religious tolerance, and many of her motivations didn’t feel proper.
Shannon: That definitely gave me food for thought as well. Alva’s fear of poverty was one of her most defining characteristics, and while I appreciated her wanting to make things better for the poor, I agree that her motivations weren’t always the most altruistic.
Lisa: Female friendship plays an enormous role in the novel, specifically between Consuelo and Alva. Did you enjoy any of these friendships in particular?
Shannon: I honestly didn’t care much about any of them. I got the feeling Ms. Fowler was giving a nod to strong female friendships without actually creating any that were compelling. Alva’s constant need to improve her position in society made it hard for her to be really close to anyone, and I think she treated her so-called friends pretty poorly at the drop of a hat.
Lisa: What’s your final grade? I’m going with a C; fine research, a good character study, but not my favorite bit of historical fiction this year, and stained with what seems to be Fowler’s typical sense of ahistory.
Shannon: I’m going with a C as well. This book had a lot of potential that it didn’t quite manage to live up to. Alva’s character was well-done, but I had to slog through the middle portion of the story, and I was honestly quite relieved to reach the end.
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