For me, the mark of a good historical novel is how quickly and deeply I care about the author’s depictions of the issues of the past. Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman had me immediately engrossed in the world of monied NYC society during the Gilded Age. Based on the life of suffragist, socialite, and champion of architecture Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, this novel details a world in which power is doled out according to the number of generations a family has lived in American wealth. After a short courtship and engagement, Alva marries into one of the wealthiest families in The Empire City, and sets out under great opposition to establish the Vanderbilt clan as a model of culture and progressivism.
Fowler’s detailed characterization of her protagonist shows Alva’s evolution from a woman who needs funds to save her family from destitution to a socialite who will not let her family be a mere member of the second wave of American wealth. The best passages of book are when Alva is examining her life; she questions the assumed roles of freed slaves, woman’s responsibilities, and the nature of love vs a marriage of convenience. The final act of Alva’s renewal is the transformation to a woman liberated from society’s ties, a person who will never take no for an answer.
There are memorable phrases and sentences on virtually every page of Fowler’s text. Her research into the social relationships, the cultural mores and the material trappings of the age is impressive. This is a book I can and will recommend for many reasons.
A Well-Behaved Woman is a novel told through the eyes of a woman who does not settle for convention. The connections to our current struggles in gender politics are not hard to see. Fowler states in her Author’s Note after the text that she was compelled to tell Alva’s story “to combat the way notable women in history are too often reduced to little more than sensationalized sound bites.” The author masterfully accomplishes this task in A Well-Behaved Woman.
5 out of 5 stars
Releases on October 16th, 2018.
Thank you to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Therese Anne Fowler for the advanced copy for review.