[Review] A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

Publisher and Publication Date:  St. Martin’s Griffin. October 1, 2019. First published 2018.
Genre: Historical fiction.
Pages: 560.
Format: Paperback.
Source: Self-purchase.
Audience: Historical fiction readers. Readers with an interest in women’s stories from the Gilded Age.
Rating: Okay to good.

Link for the book at Amazon.

Link at Barnes and Noble.



The time period for the story is the Gilded Age. This period was between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century.

The Smith family had lived in wealth as southern cotton traders in Alabama. Mrs. Smith and the four daughters spent time in Europe. After the war, they are all bought home. Mr. Murray Smith relocates the family to New York City. Mrs. Smith died after a short illness. Mr. Smith’s business dealings have left the family almost bankrupt, and he is in failing health.

Alva Smith is the second of four sisters. She feels it is her duty to marry well so the family will not be left destitute. Alva’s friend, Consuelo Yznaga, from a wealthy Cuban sugarcane family, helps Alva secure a possible husband.

A Well-Behaved Woman is the story of Alva Smith and her marriage to a Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilts have money. Alva has a southern name and lineage that’s like royalty. She brings only her name and hope to secure a fortune and its security.

My Thoughts:

I have mixed feelings about the story. On one hand, it shows the lifestyle of wealthy people living in this era, which merely satisfies a curiosity on my part. It reveals a peek at how they feel and respond to humans considered beneath them (which is any race, people group, or socio-economic class other than them.) It shares one woman’s life, Alva Smith Vanderbilt. But the story and characters do not reveal deep feelings and the reasons behind actions. The story shows what they say and do. It is actors on a stage-puppets-without thinking and pondering and revealing the inner dynamics of their mind and spirit. In summary to what I’ve addressed in this paragraph: I want more-I wanted to read about people who think and ponder about deep things. I will share two examples.

1. Alva’s marriage is like an arranged marriage without courtship, bonding, and affection. On the outside of their bubble, it is shown they have children, attend parties, give parties, have beautiful homes, and travel. Their marriage is a facade. He is not showing all his life-he holds back from her-he makes demands of her. Alva has questions but does not ask them. She wonders what is amiss but does not have guidance and experience as to know what is amiss. What is missing is honesty, transparency, communication, bonding, and intimacy. And it seems most of the people in their class live the same way. Surely, there were married couples who were close and lived a marriage of love, intimacy, and satisfaction, but in this story there is not. For me there is a feeling of waste. A waste and squander of precious time that people cannot get back. It is heart-breaking.

2. Alva is lonely for a connection and affection. She needs intimacy. I admire her commitment and loyalty. Instead, these needs are met (temporarily) with her hands. There are several scenes where she discovers the ability to please herself. However, an orgasm does not give intimacy, it is just temporary satisfaction. Which is similar to how they spend their time, other temporary pursuits like spending money. It is all temporary. It is ironic that the conversation and thoughts is often centered so much on how much money they have, how to make more money, how much money will they inherit, how to spend money, and how they cannot lose the money they have.

In A Well-Behaved Woman, I read brief information and stories about Alva’s volunteer work and suffrage activist work. I feel these should have been big in A Well-Behaved Woman. The mechanics of her personal life is the focus instead. This is a disappointment to me.

Themes in the story: money, loyalty, ambition, deception, shame, suffering, conformity, beauty, dreams, tolerance, and family.

Photo of Alva Vanderbilt, dressed for a costume ball in 1883.

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