Book Review: “A Well-Behaved Woman A Novel of the Vanderbilts”

Having recently read a couple of Fowler’s books, I was excited to discover this 2018 book about Alva Vanderbilt. I went into the book thinking that Alva Vanderbilt was only interested in social standing and extravagant homes. Even though the book is a work of fiction, it really altered my opinion of Alva for the better.

Alva lived in a time where women had few options. She may have married for money, but that was what was done at the time. She masterfully maneuvered the Vanderbilts into the highest social circles, and being in the best social circles allowed her to be a force for change. Her divorce was shocking to many at the time, but she called to light that men were given many passes by society as their wives were expected to sit by and feel grateful. She was seen as a pariah when she was really the wronged party.  Her forcing her daughter into a loveless marriage is a bit difficult to understand, but it was not nearly as shocking then as it seems now. If you are interested in Consuelo, I very much enjoyed her ghost written autobiography, “The Glitter and the Gold.”

It feels as if history has neatly filed Alva away as a sensational figure, a fortune hunter who tossed her husband aside and chased a title for her daughter. True, she was a divorcee, a women’s rights advocate, etc. But, this book suggests that there was more to Alva. Yes she did seek a divorce, but she was married for two decades prior to that. She lived an entire life with W.K. Vanderbilt and worked to advance their family. Yes she built lavish homes, but she was integral in the process–additionally her NYC home played a significant role in how the city was developing. She campaigned for all women–regardless of their race to be able to vote.

This book will have you googling socialites every few pages, wondering what it would be like to be that wealthy, and feeling grateful that women no longer have to be immensely wealthy to be independent (although I have to imagine most of us wouldn’t turn the $$$$ down).

Four out of Five Stars.

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