A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts

Written by Therese Fowler
Review by Ann Pedtke

Alva has one duty: to secure a marriage that will save her family. Though her bloodline traces back to French royalty, her father’s business interests have been left in ruins by the Civil War. As debts mount, a strategic alliance is the only hope for the family’s salvation.

Wooing William K. Vanderbilt is almost too easy – Alva’s family desperately needs cash and security; William’s family, flush with the new wealth of a railroad empire, needs an alliance with a good name to gain entry into society. But once she is married and her family’s future is secure, Alva finds that her life is one ceaseless performance. She must be the doting wife, the dutiful daughter-in-law, the unimpeachable society matron. She is a Vanderbilt – and the society families of New York (and the public) are watching her every move for a misstep.

A la Austen, the narrative’s tension hinges on the next ball, the next afternoon call… until one day, a secret comes to light that forces Alva to look up from her pursuit of approval and dare to pursue a piece of happiness for herself.

Fowler paints Alva Vanderbilt Belmont as a believable and complex character – at times ruthless, at times petty, but always admirable in her single-minded determination to achieve her goals. The woman who would become an object of scandal and a leader of the women’s suffrage movement is first a caring daughter, wife, mother, and friend who maneuvers relentlessly on behalf of those she loves. This is a story about forgiving when forgiveness seems impossible – about risking security to preserve self-respect – and about realizing that however many people you try to please, the only person you can truly please is yourself.