A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
I went into A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler with little to no information about the Vanderbilt family. Other than a brief visit to The Biltmore in North Carolina when I was in high school, and knowing they had something to do with....railroads? I didn't know much else. What I DID know was that I simply adored Fowler's first book. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I loved how she delivered Zelda's story, separate and alongside her husband's famous name and image. I flew through that book and will forever have a special place in my heart when it comes to Zelda Fitzgerald, the woman.
What took me by surprise with this story, however, was how very much I did not like Alva Vanderbilt at the beginning (or honestly, almost the first half). I found a lot of what was happening slightly off-putting. A poor woman with no prospects on the horizon vying for the attentions of a young man from a wealthy family, so her own sisters will live comfortably. So she herself will be settled. Worrying about the effects names and titles have on society and what the other women thought of her. New money versus old money. Fancy homes and clothes and trips. All of it just seemed so hard for me to grasp and what little I was learning about Alva at the beginning of the story really wasn't endearing me to her.
As Alva grew up a little, with children and responsibilities and her husband and his family grew wealthier and wealthier I started to see more of the true Alva emerge. A woman who questioned why society was so adamant about preserving status and against growth and new ideas. Why the men had to make all of the decisions, why the women were left behind a closed door time and again while the men conferred. As her strong willed nature emerged in the story I found myself really rooting for her. Yes, she made the decisions she did to live comfortably and keep her family comfortable. But she also rose up against so very much that other women were simply turning a blind eye to. And she used her wealth and status to encourage change, especially with women’s suffrage. By the last 1/4 of the book I was just really proud of her and glad for the happiness she was finally able to find with herself and the love of her life. She most certainly deserved it!
I was enlightened by the author’s comment about writing Alva’s character and viewing her through the lens of if Alva was a man, her actions would never have been question nor would she have come across as unlikeable. An interesting thought and one I’m still turning over in my mind!
What I loved most about this story was how interested the setting and other players became as I was reading. I looked up facts, images of the homes and other people or events to get a clearer picture of what that period of time was like for Alva, the Vanderbilts and other families like theirs. This is one of the reasons why I find reading historical fiction so enjoyable, when I can dive into the real life aspects of the story and learn more about the character in my book.
Four stars from me and a story I highly recommend if you enjoy historical fiction and strong female characters.