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A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts

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A novel of a family as they rule Gilded-Age New York,

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...

400 pages, Hardcover

First published October 16, 2018

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Therese Anne Fowler

11 books1,809 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,048 reviews
Profile Image for Therese Fowler.
Author 11 books1,809 followers
May 4, 2018
Yes, I'm rating my own novel five stars. Would anyone expect an author to do otherwise?

If you enjoy Jane Austen or Edith Wharton novels, if reading fiction about real figures from history interests you, or if you share a fascination with the Gilded Age and/or the Vanderbilt family, this book is for you.

Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,736 reviews14.1k followers
August 26, 2018
THE GILDED AGE, a time of unprecented economic growth, the robber barons and their new money. Huge mansions, larger than life balls, and over the top furnishings. I have read biographies of Rockefeller, The Vsnderbilts, watched documentaries, where their wives were often side notes. If I thought about them at all, I dismissed them as priviledged, money grubbers and ornemental. Now, after reading this book, which tells Alva's story, I admit to that maybe not being the case for all.

Yes, she marries money, she had the old lineage name, William Vanderbilt, the money. No, it was far from a love match, was advantageous to both parties. Yes, she built houses that were very large, set to outdo the Astor's, and others of that set. Her balls, the descriptions, an unbelievable display of wealth. Her three children afforded every advantage, and yet true happiness eluded her. One does get a sense of what this woman was, and she was much more than I had thought.

She helped to design her houses architecturally, she gave and worked on committees to help those less fortunate, and not just by donating money, she actually visited the houses and hospitals. She refused to take her husband's infedility lying down, refused to look the other way as many in her set did. She did something many would not have done, but made sure she was taken care of monetarily through it all. She was a gutsy, strong women, and towards the end of her life she worked tirelessly for suffrage and equal rights. I think I would have enjoyed meeting her.

Well written, descriptive, an insight into the family and life of the extremely wealthy, this was a joy to read.

ARC from St. Martin's Press.
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,124 reviews30.2k followers
October 15, 2018
4 gilded stars to a Well-Behaved Woman! ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

A childhood visit to The Biltmore Estate will certainly add Vanderbilt intrigue to one’s list of interests, and I lapped up this story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt.

Alva Smith’s family had once known prominence but lost it all; that is, until her best friend orchestrates her union with William Vanderbilt. The latter family is new money, but not well-accepted into society.

Alva works hard for the acceptance in society she receives. If she finds a door closed, she opens a window. She pushes the envelope and puts herself, and her family, out there. She is not constrained by the notion of “goodness” or good behavior.

Alva is a hero is many senses. Because she takes a backseat to no man, certainly not her husband, she finds herself in roles women typically did not fill at the time. She helps design her mansions, she is on the front lines of the charities in which she works (not just handing over the money), and most of all, she does not turn a blind-eye to William’s infidelity. Alva is passionate about suffrage and women’s rights, and I’m grateful to have made her acquaintance through this book.

A Well-Behaved Woman is the story of a strong woman before her time who pushed boundaries and broke through them. Beautifully-written, interesting, and insightful, historical fiction fans will enjoy Alva’s take on living during the Gilded Age as a Vanderbilt.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the complimentary ARC. All opinions are my own.

My reviews can also be found on my blog www.jennifertarheelreader.com
Profile Image for Liz.
2,022 reviews2,525 followers
October 9, 2018

3.5 stars, rounded up

I’ve often thanked my lucky stars I was born when I was. The idea of one’s sole goal in life being to manage a “good” marriage is soul deadening. And when that prospect is hampered by a loss of fortune by one’s father…

Alva Smith is looking for a husband in the years after the Civil War. “The young men, who were outnumbered three to one...watched and smiled and nodded like eager buyers at a thoroughbred market.”

Alva’s straight forward, strong willed for her time. As she thinks to herself “she was never one to wallpaper a water stain.” It doesn’t take her long to start taking her own approach. I thoroughly enjoyed her taking on the old society way of doing things, not to mention the men.

This isn’t the liveliest of stories, but then, a lady’s life wasn’t. In fact, there are parts that dragged as much as a lady’s skirts. Part of the problem is that she is so fixated on being accepted by the Old Guard, specifically Mrs. Astor. A little social climbing goes a long way. And even after she’s gotten what she wanted status wise, history repeats itself as she tries to make a suitable match for her daughter.

Fowler would have us be sympathetic towards Alva. But at times it is a struggle, such as when she calls the poor who write her “begging letters” heartless and presumptuous. But she does things other women won’t even contemplate, such as divorcing her philandering husband even though it temporarily makes her a pariah.

This was an interesting book but not an engrossing one.

My thanks to netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of this book.

Profile Image for Dem.
1,186 reviews1,097 followers
April 17, 2019
Well behaved women seldom make history Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

A detailed, fast paced and well written historical fiction novel which is based on the life of Alva Vanderbilt the powerful socialite of New York’s Gilded Age in the late 19th Century.

I started out listening to this one on audible and gave up after a few chapters in favour of a hard copy and this wasn’t the fault of the narrator but I felt I needed to read this story as the voices on the audible felt just a little too frivolous at the beginning and I was afraid it would spoil the experience for me as can sometimes happen with audible. However I did go back to the audible 60% in and was nice to read and listen as well.

I prefer Non Fiction books when reading about famous figures from history but I appreciate historical fiction novels where authors recreate narratives that take place in the past and are characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events to give us a feel for the characters and events which otherwise may go untold. There is a short author’s note at the end of the novel and an interview with the author. These historical fiction novels often inspire me to read Non fiction accounts of the events and people and that is what I really enjoy about historical fiction.

Books set in the Gilded Age hold a guilty pleasure for me and having visited the Newport mansions I am always curious when a book comes up on the “men who built America” or indeed the women in those times who “supported the men who built America” but got very little recognition for doing so.

This is a book for anyone interested in American Social Politics, New York’s Gilded Age and I love reading about the city’s cultural elite of the time. Alva Vanderbilt was a women ahead of her time that stood up for what she believed in, a women who insisted she had input into the design of her homes, wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and for women in general and we see how Alva utilises her power and millions to navigate the family to the top of the social circle of New York’s elite and to highlight women’s causes.

I have read quite a bit on the Gilded Age and all the players and this was a very different book for me and I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to picking it up in the evenings.

A couple of things that didn't work for me in the story. The time lines weren’t very clear in the novel and found myself wondering about dates and ages etc. Ava was a major player in the suffrage movement and while this only briftly covered in this novel and I would like to read more about that part of her life.

A fun and entertaining read that I really enjoyed and was so glad I picked this one up.
February 13, 2019
4.5 well done historical stars

They say you can never have enough money. They say that money can't buy happiness. They say that money is the route of all evil.

Alva Vanderbilt to the world had everything. She was married to one of the richest men in the world and could do whatever she wanted. She married William Vanderbilt, not because she loved him, but because her family was becoming destitute and Alva believed that in marrying William she would achieve two things, getting her family out of debt and eventually falling in love with William. The former happened, but the latter never did.

“Yet she understood a truth she could never say aloud: this ideal life was still deficient. She was not wholly content. Perhaps she should be, but contentment, she had learned, lay beyond money's considerable reach.”

Growing up and having my family on Long Island, New York, I had many opportunities to visit one of the summer homes of the Vanderbilt's, called Eagle's Nest. It was a beautiful home located on the water on sprawling acres. My girls went to classes there on geology and marine science and today it is a museum owned by the county. The house remains as well as the planetarium and a museum dedicated to the findings and explorations of William and his sons. As we often did the tour we learned about Alva, whose portrait hung prominently in one of the main stairwells, and the picture the tour guides painted of Alva was often none to complimentary. We were told she was a bit of a tyrant making her daughter, Consuelo's life miserable sticking a rod and a back brace on her to correct her posture, and doing all within her power to see she married European royalty.

However, in this book, Ms Fowler constructs a more humane portrait of Alva. We see her as a young girl being primed to marry wealthy, to push her family up the ladder of social rungs, to be something she thought she might like to be though never really wanted to be. This is a story of excess, of money beyond belief, and of the unhappiness many of the gilded age experienced not only in their lives, but also in their need to be people recognized by other people, to be in a social strata that they clamored for.

Ms Fowler did a wonderful job bringing Alva to life and showing us what a strong courageous woman she really was. She became, for many, a beacon of strength and a woman who fought not only for woman's suffrage, but also for equal rights.

I recommended this book to those who love reading about people of wealth, to those who enjoy a well done historical fiction book, and to those who will, in their search for money, find that it does not guarantee happiness.

Thank you to Theresa Anne Fowler, St Martin's Press, and NetGalley for a copy of this intriguing book.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,006 reviews36k followers
January 8, 2020
This is my 4th book by Therese Anne Fowler....
....in a fairly short period of time. Fowler’s becoming a favorite author. In each of her books I’m pulled into the world she creates...
In this story we have sprawling homes, fascinating-complex society intrigue - ladies of privilege- men with ridiculously amounts of power & money - sweeping grand balls & ball gowns - pearls, hats
& feathers, silks, stockings, petticoats -housekeepers, servants, horses, luxury beyond luxury of the Gilded-age....
and a legendary heiress, Alva Smith-Vanderbilt Belmont....
....her rise in society > an activist, egalitarian , philanthropist, ... a ‘tough-as-nails’ historic leader.

A couple of suggestions:
...If the blurb itself doesn’t sound like a topic you’re interested- well, then end of story....move on...
but if it does ... readers fall into one or two camps: those familiar with the Gilded-age period and ‘The Vanderbilts’...
and those who aren’t.

If you know absolutely nothing:
....I wouldn’t suggest starting with the Audiobook - until after doing some mini-background homework.
Probably the ebook or ‘physical book’ would be the best choice for ‘Gilded-age-reader-newbies’.
Read a little about the history - on Google. It won’t take that long: the information provides a great context. Plus the photos and YouTubes are outstanding.
The small base of knowledge you’ll pick up from google - will enrich the flavor of Fowler’s storytelling.

There’s nothing wrong with the audiobook. It’s good - but until I looked up a little information - the audiobook was moving too fast for me.
I had too many questions I needed answering first before my mind was ready to dive into the heart of the story itself.
Once I stacked my little ducks all in a row ...then I felt smart & powerful. ( haha)... but really,
this book became so much more fun- once I educated myself with a few facts.

If you ‘are’ a reader knowledgeable about this period of history— maybe you’ve visited the mansions in Newport, Road Island? - like my friends Stacy & Connie??....
in that case- this book should be enjoyable to you from the get-go.....
...any format of your choice will work for you ‘experienced people’.

Alva Vanderbilt was a prominent multimillionaire American socialite and a major figure in the American woman’s suffrage movement. She was determined to improve the lives of working class-women. She lead political organizations- standing for African-American women’s rights.. etc.

Ava’s best friend, Consuelo Yznaga introduced Alva to William Vanderbilt.....( the start of the beginning)...
the man she married for money & opportunity...but not love.

Fowler gives us an epic story... of celebrations and depredations, mansions and balls, lawsuits, rifts, and betrayals.....
but....as Ava said it best herself:
“nothing is ever quite the way you think it’s going to be: once there was a woman who married for money and had some great regrets about that.
Then she was betrayed, so she cut her losses and went on to marry for love”.

In the authors notes, Therese Anne Fowler shares about one of the reasons she was compelled to tell Alva’s story...( and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s in her previous novel, ‘Z’ ......
....to combat the way noble women in history were too often reduced to little more than sensationalized sound bites.
“Strong women— especially if they elect to lead lives outside of the domestic sphere-are often depicted without appropriate context”....
Intelligent, ambitious, outspoken women were considered pushy, domineering, abrasive, hysterical, shrill, etc....most often by men, but sometimes even by women.

....This story, biographical historical fiction- is enjoyable, educational, and thought provoking. I learned a lot about this fascinating period of history....
.....an emulation of the 19th century ..... with wonderful characters and a narrative style fitting of the times.

I love Fowler’s books—FINE READING.
Her books are loaded with intelligence, boldness, unvarnished sentiments, and she makes it all look effortless.

Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,427 reviews2,504 followers
September 24, 2018
The blurb describes Alva Vanderbilt as 'outspoken, brave, brilliant, fierce': what a shame, then, that the book portrays her as conventional, proper, limited by her attention to social mores and desperate to fit in - in fact, she's written as a generic rich woman who just wants to be queen bee of Gilded Age Manhattan.

After her family lose their Southern cotton plantation wealth (er, money made on the back of slavery - though Fowler is at some pains to show Alva treating her black maid as an equal: modern liberal consciousness on show?) Alva determines to marry into the super-rich Vanderbilt family and pulls off her social coup despite feeling nothing for her amiable nonentity of a husband. Par for the course at the time, of course, but hardly 'brave' or 'brilliant' behaviour.

Once married, she produces the required heirs, plots the social supremacy of the Vanderbilts via ostentatious houses, extravagant jewellery (a peacock brooch that costs the obscene equivalent of 10 years salary for a working man and which can only be worn once) and costumed balls - shunned by the Astors at the opera? No problem, just build your own new musical venue! It's hard to buy into Alva's materialistic values, and even her concerns for female suffrage and charitable works feel superficially treated, painted over the top of a wooden cut-out named Alva.

It's disconcerting that more radical models of femalehood for the time are passed over in the margins: Alva's sister Armide decides not to marry and to dedicate herself to social work; and her childhood friend Consuelo makes the required wealthy marriage then uses it to break out of the 'proper' mould of American upper-class women: she smokes, she uses words like 'whore', she talks of enjoying sex and taking lovers - and Alva is so deeply conventional that she is offended by her friend's boldness and doesn't talk to her for some time!

It's not just the characterisation which feels shallow, the mode of story-telling is superficial: big things happen (Alva has children, the man she's in love with elopes with another woman) and they just drift by with no emotional impact. This is a mono-tonal book - no peaks or troughs, just an even, measured progress where nothing really touches either Alva or us.

There's an obvious comparison to be made with Edith Wharton's novels: but where Wharton interrogates and exposes all the values of Old New York society, Alva and her author participate in and perpetuate them; where a Lily Bart struggles with whether and how (how?) to sell herself in social marriage, Alva glories in her material wealth; where Wharton creates nuance and complexity and tragedy, Fowler settles for glamorous dresses and interior-decoration-porn.

And it's the latter which makes this readable and where Fowler's research is most evident: things, all manner of things, are lavishly described. We may not have much sense of Alva's inner life, but we know all about the insides of her houses!

ARC from Amazon Vine.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
May 17, 2020
Terrible, I must dump this. This was a huge disappointment.

I have read six chapters. I rarely dump any book and I only do it when I am sure the book is not for me. Both this book and the last book I have just read, Edith Wharton's False Dawn, are set in the Gilded Age. Side by side, the comparison between the two was shocking. I have not come far enough to say anything about plot composition; I am criticizing the prose and the inability of the author to authentically capture how people of different social classes spoke to each other during the Gilded Age.

This reads as a (poor) romance novel for a young adult. Chick lit, fluff, a beach-read, not quality historical fiction. I am not disparaging these genres. I am merely placing the book in the genre it belongs. I am writing this as a word of warning to those of you interested in credible, well written historical fiction.
Profile Image for Victoria.
412 reviews319 followers
December 18, 2019
An intelligent woman in this world takes her chances where she finds them.

And boy did Alva Vanderbilt live up to that statement! This was an enjoyable piece of historical fiction, a glimpse into the Gilded Age and one of its most famous families written from the perspective of one that left an indelible mark on New York society and the Suffrage movement.

I think the author did a fine job of researching and illustrating the life of this unfathomable woman without resorting to a dissertation. I also found it interesting that she wrote it in a 19th c literary fashion, a bold choice given our contemporary sensibilities about feminism, one I didn’t quite take to right away, but eventually made for a more atmospheric read. I highly recommend this novel for its contextualized portrait of a woman of her time, but also ahead of it. This is a woman who asked that her pallbearers all be female and on whose coffin was draped a banner with the phrase, Failure Is Impossible.

[I’m including a portion of the author’s notes which further enriched my understanding of her intent and that of the woman she depicted.

One of the reasons I was compelled to tell Alva’s story is to combat the way notable women in history are too often reduced to little more than sensationalized sound bites. Strong women--especially if they elect to lead lives outside of the domestic sphere--are often depicted without appropriate context, are made to seem one-note (as if any of us could be defined by a single act in our personal history or a single aspect of personality), and are described with sexist labels. An intelligent, ambitious, outspoken woman is called ‘pushy,’ ‘domineering,’ ‘abrasive,’ ‘hysterical,’ ‘shrill,’ etc., most often by men, but sometimes other women as well.

Alva is regularly framed this way, said to be motivated solely by a desire for the trappings of wealth along with social prominence and power…So, it’s no surprise that those who’ve written about her have found themselves unable to explain why she went to such lengths for the women’s suffrage cause. Boredom is the theory most often advanced, if the matter is addressed at all. As for her support of African American women’s rights, I’ve found no account that has attempted to address this.
Profile Image for Cindy Burnett (Thoughts from a Page).
565 reviews979 followers
August 1, 2020
4 stars

A Well-Behaved Woman is a fabulous story about Alva Vanderbilt and her determination to succeed in cut-throat, Gilded-Age New York. Fowler humanizes Alva and presents her in a way that will have the reader viewing Alva through a more sympathetic lens. The Gilded Age is a fascinating time period to me, and I loved viewing the era through Alva Vanderbilt’s eyes. I very much enjoyed this book and highly recommend it for anyone who loves that time period. I received this book to read and review; all opinions are my own.

Listen to my podcast at https://www.thoughtsfromapage.com for fun author interviews. For more book reviews, check out my Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/thoughtsfro....
Profile Image for Lisa.
623 reviews236 followers
November 19, 2018
A fascinating and fabulous story of a strong, independent woman well ahead of her time.

Alva Smith’s mother was deceased, her father was ailing and her family was quickly becoming destitute. Her family‘s good name was useless on its own. She needed to quickly marry someone with money. Alva, with the help of her best friend Consuelo Yznaga, was able to secure a proposal from the young William K. Vanderbilt. The hope from the Vanderbilts was that Alva, because of her name, would put the Vanderbilt’s in good stead with the Astor’s. The matriarch of the Astor family, Caroline, known as the “queen of the elite” turned a cold shoulder to Alva upon their first introduction.

After their marriage in 1875, Alva worked tirelessly on recognition and acceptance by the Astor’s. Her success came at a 1883 costume ball, at Alva’s newly constructed Fifth Avenue Mansion. Caroline Astor acquiesces to attending for her daughter’s sake. It was a huge coup for Alva Vanderbilt, who was raising three children and involved in countless good causes. Alva built a second mansion at Newport, while William was off playing at being rich. Alva was determined to marry her only daughter to England’s most eligible duke and stops at nothing to make it possible. Alva means to do right by all, but sometimes a well-behaved woman has had enough. Sometimes being well-behaved is just not the right thing to do.

“A person might easily come to think that this ball, this house, Alva’s efforts to improve culture and to beautify New York, were only about Alva wanting to elevate herself, with the Vanderbilt family getting the secondary benefits of her rise. One might conclude that she put personal ambition above all else in order to feed an insatiable vanity. Well, let them, she thought. And intelligent woman in this world takes her chances where she finds them.”


A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN is a fascinating and fabulous historical fiction read. Both the writing and the story are delightful. Alva Smith Vanderbilt was portrayed as the epitome of a strong, independent woman well ahead of her time. Her ability to make things happen and her vulnerabilities were both evident in the book, making her come alive on the page.

My favorite part of the story was when Alva confronted the Vanderbilts at a family dinner and proposed they each build a new mansion on Fifth Avenue with the design of their choice that will stand as a work of art that can be admired by all. She argued with the Vanderbilt men that the benefit would be beautifying New York and employing hundreds of artisans, stonemasons, and carpenters, at a time when unemployment was at an all time high. It was a brilliant strategy.

Author THERESE ANNE FOWLER descriptions were vivid and I felt as if I was in the receiving line with Alva at her 1883 Costume Ball as the various guests ascended the red carpet entry and discussed their costumes with the hostess. The most outrageous costume was a woman dressed as a cat. With rows of white cat tails made into a overskirt and an actual cat’s pelt, head and all fashioned into a hat.

Overall A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN is an enlightening and entertaining read, one that may even have you researching historical pictures as you read. I just had to see what Alva’s glorious mansions of the gilded-age looked like. If you enjoy reading books about strong, independent, forward-thinking, cause-oriented women, Alva Vanderbilt’s story should not be missed. She did so much for so many. Fowler is a New York Times best selling author of numerous novels including Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Thanks to Netgalley for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

“Yet she understood a truth she could never say aloud: this ideal life was still deficient. She was not wholly content. Perhaps she should be, but contentment, she had learned, lay beyond money’s considerable reach.”

Publisher St. Martin’s Press
Published October 16, 2018
Review www.bluestockingreviews.com
Profile Image for Historical Fiction.
920 reviews589 followers
October 17, 2018
Find this and other reviews at: https://historicalfictionreader.blogs...

Knowing something about the history that inspired a story is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re dying for a creative mind to fictionalize the material, but on the other, you want to see it done a certain way and you get intensely frustrated when the author fails to deliver your private expectations. It is, of course, ridiculous to expect anyone to read your mind, but the disappointment exists just the same.

This phenomenon inspired my negative and obscenely biased response to Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter and Allison Pataki’s Sisi series, The Accidental Empress and Sisi: Empress on Her Own. It’s the reason I’ve avoided Susan Appleyard’s In a Gilded Cage and Danny Saunder’s Sissi: The Last Empress and it is the root cause of my delay in reviewing Kerri Maher’s The Kennedy Debutante and Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman.

I’m sharing this because I want to be very clear that my review of this book is slanted by perspective and hope anyone reading it understands that. If you choose to proceed, please try to keep context in mind and be aware of potential spoilers.

I wanted A Well-Behaved Woman to highlight a figure whose drive pushed her to the very height of society, whose blind ambition required sacrifice, who only realized the collateral damage of her decisions late in life, and in an act of redemption used that revelation to reconnect with her daughter and empower the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

What I got was an endless parade of parties and cotillions, marital infidelities and society gossips, topped off with the frills and fuss of keeping up with Mrs. Astor’s four hundred. Call me crazy but the themes I’d envisioned simply weren’t part of this story. The subject matter had so much potential, but Fowler honed in on emotional and social repression. She wrote a poor little rich girl where there might have been a phoenix rising from the ashes to wage a personal war on the institutions and policies that held her back, a war that in many ways continues through the present day.

Reviews and ratings are subjective and my commentary is no exception. I found no flaw in Fowler’s writing or style, I appreciate the author’s ability to recognize good material, and think a lot of people will really enjoy this piece. It wasn’t a good fit for me, but that doesn’t mean the story put forth is without merit.
Profile Image for Erin.
2,956 reviews485 followers
October 14, 2018
Alva did not need to love William Vanderbilt; she needed only to marry him.

In the years after the American Civil War, New York's Astors, Roosevelt's, Rothschilds' and Vanderbilts were the cream of high society and advantageous marriages were at the very heart of the papers. Enter Alva Smith, her father ailing, her mother dead, it's up to Alva to elevate her sisters and her husband's family to the stature of leading New York families. But Alva wasn't just a mere trophy wife. She was a woman who wanted the Vanderbilt millions to help the poor, the sick, and the orphans. She was a woman, unlike many in her society that believed in civil rights for both black and white citizens, and she advocated for women's right to vote.

If only the book had shown more about this, instead of the endless parties and other frivolities of that time period, my rating would have been higher. BUT. I loved the author's note and acknowledgements at the end and I felt this was a good introduction to a woman and a family I knew very little about.

Thanks to Netgalley for an e- Arc in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Lynn.
862 reviews125 followers
March 25, 2019
4.5 stars.
This is an enjoyable novel about Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, a noted figure of the Gilded Age. Alva was born into a wealthy family whose fortunes declined after the Civil War. After her mother dies and her father becomes ill and can no longer work, Alva sees the only way to save herself and her family is marry a wealthy man. To this end she manages to wed William K. Vanderbilt, the grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, who built a fortune in railways. Theirs is not a love match, but they each had what the other needed: she needed money and he needed a respectable wife. Their marriage produces 3 healthy children, but no satisfaction for Alva. She contents herself with charity work and being the “perfect wife”, until she no longer can keep up the facade. After over 20 years of marriage, she shockingly files for divorce on the grounds of William’s adultery. Her divorce ostracizes her from the wealthy society that she had once craved. She soon finds love with Oliver Belmont, a man she has known for years. After his untimely death, she immerses herself in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

This is a well written book about the Gilded Age and the people who inhabited it. Alva is definitely a force to be reckoned with. She knows what she wants and figured out how to get it, even within the societal constraints of the times. She knows that she has to be careful about how she is perceived and what she does. She feels that her reputation is everything, until she no longer cares and forges ahead with her own life. Her best friend, Consuelo, the Duchess of Manchester, loves her but is very conniving, sometimes not in Alva’s best interest. Her husband, William, is a wealthy, spoiled, boor of a man, who only thinks of his own self interest. The only man who is portrayed in a positive light is Oliver, her one true love.

There are wonderful descriptions of the clothes, the mansions, the food and the way of life of this elite society. It is fun to Google the Newport “cottages” and see these ostentatious mansions and look up the elaborate fashions of the times.

I deducted a half a star because the story primarily revolves around Alva’s life in relation to the men in her life. Most of the book is about her and William. A short section is about her marriage to Oliver. It’s only in the author’s notes that we learn about her activities regarding women’s rights. There is a slight mention of an issue at the opera, that they can’t get a box because of the social caste system, and she wants her husband and his friends to build a new music hall. Then a few pages later, it states that she “ solved the problem of the opera box and aimed to reshape New York society’s music scene...” The author never says how she did this, or that her solution was to found The Metropolitan Opera, which has survived to this day. For an historical fiction book about a woman who worked tirelessly fo women’s rights, this book only views her as an appendage to wealthy men. I found the title of the book to be somewhat ironic. The title comes from Alva’s belief, ingrained by her mother, that she should always be “A Well-Behaved Woman.” But we all know that well-behaved women seldom make history. And Alva certainly has made history, especially when she threw off the shackles of good behavior as defined by her times.

That said, I definitely recommend this book. It is a fascinating read and a wonderful study of a unique woman.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 35 books11.2k followers
April 16, 2018
“A Well-Behaved Woman is a gem: a fascinating tale of Gilded Age manners and mores, and one remarkable woman’s attempts to transcend them. Therese Anne Fowler, the immensely gifted writer who gave us all new insights into Zelda Fitzgerald in her novel, Z, has done it again for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont.”
-- Chris Bohjalian, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of The Flight Attendant
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,785 reviews1,625 followers
January 20, 2019
A Well Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts is a hybrid tale of fact and fiction, truth and embellishment. It explores the life of a strong and remarkable woman, Alva Smith, born into what would become a harsh world of poverty and injustice. Due to this, she sets her sights on William Vanderbilt and eventually, she marries into a life of wealth, prominence and materialism. This is excellent historical fiction that is full of intrigue and details of the elite world Alva finds herself in; a world most of will only ever see from afar.

What is most notable, however, is what Alva decided to do after her rise to prominence. The causes she championed despite them being, in most people's minds and of the time period, out there, for want of better terminology. Alva could put her mind to whatever she thought fit, and one of those schools of thought she had a substantial part in was that of feminism. To say that this type of strong-mindedness and passion by women was frowned upon in The Gilded Age would be an understatement; women were supposed to be seen and not heard, to be the homemaker and to be there to cater to their husbands every whim but stubborn Alva turned this on its head and was determined to do what she could to change the way society worked. Her innate fighting spirit was reawakened by the suffrage movement. This is a tale of a woman who refused to conform to the social norms of the time and made her own way in the world as much as possible.

All in all, this is a beautifully written novel that simply oozes readability and is so compelling that it demands to be devoured in a single sitting. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Two Roads for an ARC.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,691 reviews451 followers
December 31, 2019
Alva Smith and her three sisters were left destitute after their mother died, and their father was too ill to work. The unmarried sisters had been raised in a previously prosperous and socially connected family. Alva hoped to save her family by marrying into wealth, and set her sights on William K. Vanderbilt. Alva was an intelligent, well traveled, interesting woman with social connections, and the Vanderbilts (heirs to a railroad fortune) needed access to New York's Gilded Age high society.

The biographical novel tells about Alva and William's marriage and children, her interest in architecture and design, her work with charitable causes, and her support of women's suffrage. Her parties rivaled those of Caroline Astor. Although Alva enjoyed the Vanderbilt money, it could not buy her happiness as she felt trapped in a loveless marriage.

Alva was an outspoken, determined woman who was involved in women's rights. The author's note at the end of the book gave more information about her involvement. I wish less of the book had been about snaring Mr Vanderbilt, and more had covered her activity with women's causes.

I've visited the mansions in Newport several times, so I enjoyed reading about the Vanderbilt's Marble House, and Oliver Belmont's Belcourt. Anytime I hear about the ultra-rich socialites with their ostentatious spending, I find it fascinating but hard to justify when so many people were starving. The book was enjoyable as it showed both the life of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, and the role of women in the Gilded Age.
Profile Image for Karen R.
839 reviews496 followers
March 7, 2019
4.5 stars. I enjoyed Therese Anne Fowler’s ‘Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald’ and looked forward to reading her latest story of Alva Belmont Vanderbilt, her rise in social status and that of the Vanderbilt family as seen through Alva's eyes.

Alva is introduced as a dynamic young woman in the courting stage who catches the eye of William Vanderbilt, marrying him in 1875. I had no knowledge of her prior to picking up the book but could tell early on that this woman clearly had more purpose than that of being arm candy for her husband, hosting and attending fancy dress balls and raising well-behaved children. She puts her smarts, wealth and connections to work not only to keep the Vanderbilts in the limelight but to help those less fortunate and by becoming a prominent figure in women’s suffrage. Her story is remarkable and I found myself quickly and completely submerged in the glamour and glitter of the Golden Age. The care and research Fowler’s has put into this book is impressive.

I loved Alva’s associations with some recognizable characters, the well-heeled who enter her vortex. I especially enjoyed her growing/changing friendship with best friend Consuela and the written letters sent between them. One quite memorable moment relates to Caroline Aster, the New York socialite known as the “queen of the elite” who snubbed Alva. Alva’s crafty way of bringing Aster around was brilliant.

An entertaining and enlightening read that I highly recommend to those who enjoy historical fiction.
Profile Image for Maria Yankulova.
691 reviews253 followers
February 28, 2021
Алва Вандербилт - каква забележителна история!
Поздравления на издателство Обсидиан за избора да издадат тази книга. Терез Ан Фаулър се превръща в новата ми любимка.

“Романът за Алва Вандербилт” ни потапя в живота в Ню-Йорк през последните години на 19 век и прави изключително добър разрез на порядките и обществото по това време. Централна сюжетна линия заема брака между Алва Смит (дама с потекло, но обедняла заради боледуване на баща и) и Уилям К. Вандербилт (внук на един от най-богатите хора в Америка, който обаче не е първозаселник).

Двете семейства изключително много разчитат на този съюз, защото едните виждат спасение в него от бедността и мизерията, която ги очаква, а Вандербилт разчитат да получат достъп до салоните на висшето общество в Манхатън, до което не могат да се доберат въпреки богатството си, т.като са новобогаташи и нямат място в кръга на първозаселниците.

Това обаче далеч не изчерпва темите в книгата, която много ме развълнува. В последните години излизат много книги (и Слава Богу!) свързани с правата на жените през годините, бунтарския дух и борбеността. В този ред на мисли, това, което прави Терез Ан Фаулър ме впечатли силно, а именно успява да изгради сложен и комплексен психологически образ на жената от онова време.

Алва е изключително интересна жена. С брака си спасява трите си сестри от бедност, обричайки себе си на живот без любов. Умът и интересите и обаче много надхвърлят обикновеният семеен живот - изграждане на дом, отглеждане на деца и пиене на чай в светско обкръжение. Тя се интересува от правата на жените, увлича се от архитектура и донякъде преобразява облика на Манхатън в края на 19ти век.

Години по-късно Алва се развежда и с това разбунва духовете и бива отхвърлена от висшето общество. В края на живота си оглавява движението на суфражетките.

Много комплексен и интересен образ! Бих била щастлива ако книгата придобие по-голяма популярност, защото определено си струва, дори и само, за да ни напомни (на нас жените) с какви свобода и права разполагаме в наши дни (мисля, че сме ги приели за даденост) и да ги ценим малко повече.

Оставям един любим цитат.

“Алва бе дълбоко развълнувана от картината пред себе си. Също като американските жени англичанките повече от петдесет години внасяха петиции за равни права и повече от петдесет години им се обясняваше как обществото ще бъде сполетяно от катастрофа, ако мъжете допуснат такива права. Да допуснат! Сякаш правата бяха съхранявани в банкови сейфове и мъжете можеха да ги разпределят когато им е удобно.”
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,459 reviews105 followers
April 16, 2019
I have no idea why I read this book since (1) I seldom, if ever, read historical fiction, and (2) the antics of NYC "high society" of the Gilded Age give me a pain in the bum. So my review will be short and not too sweet.

The Astors, Vanderbilts, et al were the ruling class of society and were constantly trying to outdo each other to gain even more prominence. They built hideous, overblown houses in NYC and the Hamptons, bought huge yachts, and threw elaborate parties and balls that made headlines all over the country. They married for money to solidify their position in society and trolled Europe for titled husbands for their daughters. Happiness or love never entered the picture and most had miserable marriages.....and the antidote to that was to spend more money.

This book follows the life of Alva Vanderbilt, wife of William K. Vanderbilt, and she turns out to be as boring and shallow as all the others, even though the author attempts to give the impression that she was more independent and did great charitable works. Somehow I missed that part! When one dislikes the character, it is hard to give the book a good review. My apologies to the author.
Profile Image for Whitney.
131 reviews50 followers
January 25, 2020
Overall: An interesting portrait and story of a strong woman before her time. I wish this book focused more not the later part of Alva's life when she made a huge difference on the American suffrage movement and less on her marriage to William. OK-good overall and would recommend to fans of stories about strong women, American social politics, New York’s Gilded Age, and historical fiction but I was hoping for more 6/10 or 3+/5

Summary: “Well behaved women seldom make history”
Ava Vanderbilt was a woman before her time and though many today would consider her behavior impeccable, she was often considered scandalous and criticized for her feminist views and strong independence. The novel follows Ava's life from prior to meeting and marrying William Vanderbilt to just prior to when Alva became a real force for women's rights.

The Good: This novel tells the early story of an incredible women who made lots of positive changes for women during her life. The author has payed intricate attention to detail and brings the setting and gilded age to life. The book offers an unsentimental, thought provoking and somewhat complex examination of an extraordinary life during a time where women were grossly undervalued and oppressed. Alva demanded and achieved more, and this altered the course of women’s lives in unprecedented ways.

The Bad: I feel that this book really missed an amazing opportunity to highlight the life of an incredible woman. The book focused heavily on Alva's earlier years and marriage to William Vanderbilt and we really only had an authors note about the later years and Alva's tole in the American suffrage movement. Not only was Alva a formidable force in the women’s movement, she was also one of the few individuals who fought for the inclusion of African-American women in the cause and this was at a time when America was still crippled with racial discrimination. I think the book made her seem more superficial than she was and really missed an amazing opportunity.

Favorite Quotes:
“No person’s good opinion of you matters more than your own.”

“No matter how right you are in your thinking, you could die waiting for some people to change their minds.”

“Yet she understood a truth she could never say aloud: this ideal life was still deficient. She was not wholly content. Perhaps she should be, but contentment, she had learned, lay beyond money's considerable reach.”
Profile Image for Jaksen.
1,332 reviews57 followers
July 12, 2018
A dnf for me. I won the audio book through the Goodreads giveaway program, which I very much appreciate. However...

Can't listen for much longer. Exaggerated, stereotypical 'rich folks,' and the opposite for the downtrodden. Stilted language where the obvious is often (over)expressed. I think that's often the problem with historical novels (for me): too much explaining; real people don't talk that way; it's not necessary to give a history lesson on every page.

And so, because I didn't finish - but read or listened long enough to know this wasn't for me - no rating.

No stars.

Profile Image for Ashley.
44 reviews
April 12, 2018
This was okay. I mean really, just okay. I think I skipped around a lot. BUT. I now know everything about the Vanderbilt family and other swanky 19th century families in NYC. So, I wasn’t a huge fan, but it did instigate further research.* Whatever. I love research. This book was kind of a win on that front.

*starts planning summer trip to Newport so I can pretend to be a distant relation.
Profile Image for Magdalena aka A Bookaholic Swede.
1,938 reviews787 followers
October 14, 2018
A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN is a story about the notorious Alva Vanderbilt who married a rich man to save herself and her sisters from destitution. Once Alva Smith lived a prosperous life, but that was until their fortune was lost. She has to wed really well and she catches the eye of William Vanderbilt from the very rich, but socially outcast Vanderbilts. Alva is hell-bent on getting herself and the Vanderbilts everything they want, no matter the cost. But, can all the money in the world buy her the happiness she wants?

Profile Image for Monte Price.
627 reviews1,702 followers
February 1, 2021
So much of my personal disappointment has to stem from the fact that I went in thinking that I was going to love it and have this be a new favorite. While I have no doubt that Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont was a dynamic figure, the person in the pages of this novel often felt dull. So much of the story hinges on connecting with her, something this is often hard to do as the novel makes massive leaps through time to tell a larger portion of her history while simultaneously leaving out anything that would make the reader care. So much of the middle of the book is Alva building homes and while there is a nice commentary about how little control Alva has over her own life and how insecure her station is, all wonderful setup for the suffrage supporter she was in reality, in the confines of this novel her character seems forced down and made artificially small.

There were few and far moments in this novel that I was really gripped and only found myself compelled to finish because of some hope that at some point the novel would start to feel like a novel and less like an abbreviated textbook.

The writing here is average at best, often times leaning more into choppy than anything actually enjoyable. Alva has very few established relationships with people outside of her family, and even the connections to her family often feel two dimmensional and not at all well realized. So many of the figures in this book feel like shadows of the people they are meant to be and I often found myself thinking that reading a wikipedia article about Alva during this time could yield more well rounded characters and interesting information.

Overall I found the pacing of the book lacking, not much worth recommending and I am just utterly disappointed.
Profile Image for Emma.
2,435 reviews828 followers
March 30, 2019
Well Alva Vanderbilt was a determined woman! This is a novel of the Gilded Age , an era I knew little about before I read this. This is a story of excess and ambition. I am inspired to spend more time reading books and novels about this period of American history. Thanks to Netgalley for giving me a chance to read an arc of this book.
Profile Image for Annette.
765 reviews337 followers
July 13, 2018
Alva Smith’s family could trace their bloodline to royalty of France and Scotland, but their fortune was gone.

William K. Vanderbilt is the third Manhattan generation of a wealthy family, but their bloodline has no connection to any royalty, no title or lands, nothing in history to claim glory, not even by extension.

The Knickerbockers of Manhattan closely guard their tight high society and will not let the Vanderbilts in.

Alva is so poor that she needs to marry into money soon or she’ll be looking for a job and living in tenements. So she considers her options. And she tries to convince herself that the Vanderbilts are at least influential in politics and policy. “The Vanderbilt’s bread was already half buttered.”

Once married to William, she turns out to be a lady of action: writing letters for her father to sign to admit Vanderbilts to the Union Club. Instead of joining charity where money is just handed to agency, she goes to hospitals and places where charity is needed and investigates herself where the money needs to be directed. She encourages Vanderbilts to take action in elevating themselves to its rightful place in society by investing in building mansions that make statement in architecture.

The first half of the book is very interesting. However, once Alva achieves the status she was looking for, the second part of the book falls pretty flat.

Profile Image for Pam Jenoff.
Author 35 books5,155 followers
December 6, 2018
Fowler previously wowed readers with Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. She now takes on another remarkable woman in history Alva Smith, who came from a destitute southern family after the Civil War and married into the Vanderbilt dynasty. In the story, Smith struggles to win social status among New York's old money family, and goes on to become a leader in the women's suffrage movement. I loved this well-research and vividly rendered tale of unconventional and little known strength, set against the backdrop of New York's Gilded Age.
January 29, 2019
Alva Smith grew up in Alabama with her parents who were, at one point, well off. But all that has changed. Her father's heath took a nose dive and is now bankrupt. It's up to Alva to save her family by marrying well. Her mother brought her up to be not only well-educated, but worldly too. Her best friend, Conseulo Yznaga, an heiress, encourages her to go to a ball in order to secure someone with money. And she does. William K. Vanderbilt, from the famous Vanderbilt family, is interested in her and things are looking up for Alva. Why would William look her way? Well, his family, even though they have a ton of money, aren't well-liked in society as they are new money. If he marries Alva, his chances of being received by the old money crowd are great. But Alva has her work cut out for her as Caroline Astor won't even acknowledge her presence. So what's a woman to do? Well, build and design the most luxurious mansion New York has ever seen and so much more. Alva is a force to be reckoned with. Therese Anne Fowler's A Well-Behaved Woman is so much more than a novel about Gilded Age New York. Alva is an inspiration even to women today.
Read the rest of my review here:
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