[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.

Summary:

1874.

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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[Review] North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Publisher and Publication Date: Oxford University Press. 1854-55. My edition was published 1998.
Genre: Fiction. Classic literature.
Pages: 496.
Format: Paperback.
Source: Self-purchase.
Audience: Readers of classic literature.
Rating: Excellent.

North and South is a read for these challenges: Victorian Reading Challenge, The Classics Club, Chunkster Reading Challenge, and Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

For further information:
Oxford World’s Classics
The Gaskell Society
American Literature

Elizabeth Gaskell Goodreads author page

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson Gaskell, 1810-1865

Other books by Elizabeth Gaskell:

Mary Barton 1848
Cranford 1853
Ruth 1853
The Life of Charlotte Bronte 1857
Sylvia’s Lovers 1863
Cousin Phillis and Other Tales 1865
The Grey Tales and Other Tales 1865
Wives and Daughters 1866
Gothic Tales is an assortment of her writings from 1851-1861. The Old Nurse’s Story is one of these stories. The e-book is currently .99 cents at Amazon.

Summary:

Margaret Hale is the heroine of North and South. Her parents are Mr. and Mrs. Hale. Margaret has one brother, Frederick, who was in the Navy but brought about a mutiny. He is now living on the European continent and in hiding for fear of court-martial. Her father is a minister in the Church of England. She has a cousin named Edith. Edith is Margaret’s age and early in the book she marries.

Margaret is from the south of England. She is a young woman of middle class.

The Hale family’s lives change when Mr. Hale resigns his position as a minister. The family relocates to a northern town in England. It is an industrial town. The mill owner is Mr. John Thornton.

My Thoughts:

This is the second time to read North and South. I’ve seen the film several times. It is a film produced by the BBC.
When I re-read a book I try and focus on something new. I usually pick a different character than when I read the book the first time. Focusing on someone new helps me learn something new about the book. This time I focused on Margaret’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hale.

There are several reasons why I love this story:

1. Margaret is one of my favorite book heroines. She is steady and reliable. She is observant and cautious. She has a heart of gold. She is not a woman who can be persuaded to become involved with a person or an idea without time to think and weigh the decision. She is beautiful in appearance and character.
2. The romantic element has time to develop and mature.
3. Margaret’s parents come across to me as acting much older than their probable age. Margaret is about 18 or 19 when the story begins. Her parents would be in their 40s or early 50s. But they come across as being much older, 60s to 70s. Mr. and Mrs. Hale are insecure, frail, fragile people. Margaret shows remarkable strength in comparison to her parents. Margaret shows remarkable beauty in her character opposite her cousin Edith. North and South is a story of several comparisons: Margaret and her parents. Margaret and her cousin Edith. The industrial town of the north compared to the towns of the south. The industrial workers compared to the owners. There is also a comparison between Protestant and Catholic.
4. Mr. and Mrs. Hale are not a good match. They are a married couple who are not close. They do not bring out the best in one another. They are not a source of strength for one another. They are not a couple who are transparent and honest. Their strength seems to come from Margaret. She is more like a parent than they are. This is intriguing for a story.
5. Mr. John Thornton is a bit of a brooding, serious type character. It is never voiced, but I believe he is lonely for a wife. He is at an age when he no longer wants to share a home with mother, but have a wife and help-mate. I felt empathy for him in the story.
6. Mrs. Thornton who is John’s mother. She comes across as a sour tart. However, there is something I immediately like, she is a person who states how she feels and this is a breath of fresh air. Whether I like what she always says is another matter. She too is a comparison against Mr. and Mrs. Hale.
7. A good, solid, satisfying closure for the story.

I don’t understand exactly why Mr. Hale wanted to leave the church. This is skimmed over. It is vague. However, through their demeanor and behavior I understand how in this type of situation people feel ashamed, disgraced, embarrassed, and humiliated. His career as a minister placed him in a distinct class station. When he left there would be gossip. Those people would treat the minister and his family differently. Add to this is the situation of their son and what happened to him. Both of these issues are too much and the Hale family would need to relocate.

Themes in the story: family honor, romance, suffering, judgment, conformity, beauty, greed, charity, tolerance, grief, kindness, death and dying, courage, and compassion.

(Review) The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

Publisher and Publication Date: Delacorte Press. January 12, 2021.
Genre: Historical fiction.
Pages: 368.
Format: Advanced reader copy, e-book.
Source: I received a complimentary e-book copy from NetGalley. I am not required to write a positive review.
Audience: Readers of American history.
Rating: Excellent.

Melanie Benjamin website

Link to pre-order the book at Amazon

Summary:
In history, The Children’s Blizzard is also called the Schoolhouse Blizzard.
The event happened January 12-13, 1888.
There was snow and cold temperatures in the North and Central Great Plains. Then, they had a day of warmth. Schoolchildren went to school with less winter clothing because it was warmer. The blizzard began while they were at school and just before the school day ended.
The story is compiled from survivor stories.
The main characters are two sisters who are teachers: Gerda and Raina Olsen. Anette Pedersen, a servant girl living in the home of a farmer and his family. Gavin Woodson, a newspaper writer.

My Thoughts:
I’d first heard of the Children’s Blizzard referenced to in other stories and historical articles. This is the first book I’ve read about the event.

Several reasons why I love this story.
1. The main characters have personal stories. The stories of the young females impacted me the most. A few of the topics explored are young women had few opportunities for employment and they didn’t want to loose their job. Young women were often dreamy and naïve about romantic relationships. Men took advantage of young women and girls who were alone (this still happens). The teachers on the prairie were often young, lonely, homesick, inexperienced, and not much older than the students.
2. I learned what kind of weather predictions were available. I learned how weather reports were examined and reported. I learned how this particular blizzard developed.
3. A minor character, but no less important, is an African American business owner who has a family. He and his family are impacted by the blizzard. He takes action to find his children and help. I saw through his eyes how a black man was seen and treated in the Midwest during the late 19th century. I’d love to see this man have his own story.
4. The story doesn’t stop when the blizzard ends. The story continues post blizzard.
5. I feel this story matters. One reason is it shows a significant history that changed the lives of people who had not lived in America long. This area had first generation people from Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. These people were learning to live in a new land and create a life in the Upper Midwest. English was not their first language. In the story, Raina remarks she cannot speak her native language to the students even though they too speak the same language. I can better understand how they felt. I have empathy for their plight.
6. The Children’s Blizzard is a story I became apart of from the first page.
7. Several themes are explored: domestic violence, child abuse, anger, bitterness, perseverance, courage, and compassion.


(Review) Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

Lilli de Jong

Publisher and Publication Date: Anchor Books. Paperback published July 2018.
Genre: Historical fiction.
Pages: 352.
Source: I received a complimentary copy from Anchor Books, but I’m not required to leave a positive review.
Rating: Recommend.
Audience: Historical fiction fans. Readers of books about strong women.

Amazon

It’s been a long time since a fiction book has stirred my heart with conflict and heavy emotion!

Janet Benton website

Summary:
The year is 1883. The city is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Lilli de Jong is a 23 year old woman who is unmarried and pregnant. She is a Quaker. Her mother died and life with the new step-mother is unbearable. When the pregnancy is revealed, she begins living in a place that houses unmarried pregnant women. The original plan was to give the baby up for adoption, but she changes her mind. An opportunity of employment brings a direction change, but it comes with a heart-wrenching cost.

My Thoughts:
I know what it is like to be pregnant and unmarried. I eventually did get married, but not until midway through the pregnancy. In the early 1980s, people were more judgmental and critical than now. I was 18 and had graduated from high school, but looked much younger. People judged me for looking younger too. They thought I was 13 or 14 and had a baby. It was incredibly tough. Never mind all the people who were having sex and who did not get pregnant. I did and was judged. This is a first reason why Lilli de Jong provoked strong emotion in me. I can relate to her circumstance and plight.
A second reason this book provoked strong emotion is Lilli has excruciating tough decisions to make. She is singularly alone. This is an era where women were under the control of either a father, husband, or a custodian. Independent women were rare. The decisions and consequences of Lilli’s made my hair stand on end, because I can not imagine enduring what she did.
Lilli de Jong is a story where the first line is a clincher. “Some moments set my heart on fire, and that’s when language seems the smallest.”
The book is written as a journal and the divisions are listed as notebooks.
I enjoyed reading about maternal and infant care. One example is what to do about a breast infection.
I loved the research (author’s notes) on a rarely talked about subject: women and infants in the 19th century. I also loved another storyline: a mother who cannot nurse her baby. I’d thought of this before and wondered what they did? Did they use milk from a cow or goat? A solid choice is to use a wet nurse. The conditions and direction of finding a wet nurse is described in the story, as well as how the mother of the child may have felt.
Adding Quaker as the religion of Lilli’s made the book enticing and different. In books similar to this storyline, most of the young women are Catholic.

Lilli de Jong is a Library Journal Best Historical Fiction 2017.
National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2017