REVIEW: A Well-Behaved Woman, Therese Anne Fowler

Friday, 28 December 2018

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... 

Therese Anne Fowler's A Well-Behaved Woman is a masterful evocation of a period in American history which almost certainly enthrals us all: the Gilded Age. Just seeing the phrase surely evokes in nearly all of us (even in myself, a Brit who can barely name any of the American presidents) an image of extremes - in wealth, in politics, in beauty. An, as Mark Twain so astutely hit the nail on the head, era of serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding.
Therese Anne Fowler captures all of these extremes through the rise of Alva Vanderbilt into one of the richest and well-known families in the world, through a loveless and stifling marriage, and it is a stark and honest meditation on the benefits and pitfalls of seemingly having it all. Because, sure, there is excess and scandal, love affairs and some of history's most beloved architecture, but A Well-Behaved Woman also shines on a light on the areas of society that, even the women in the world who had absolutely everything, were still barred from.
It was limiting, stifling, narrowing - no matter a women's social status, they were relegated to solely the domestic sphere, and this book is one that truly captures that unending struggle between women of the time and their untapped capacity to do so much more. This leads the tone of the novel to be a sort of melancholy happiness, one that can only be soothed by looking towards the future; knowing that, thanks to the twists and turns of history, Alva Vanderbilt did eventually find fulfilment and happiness and even a pinch of feminism.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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