American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt

Written by Karen Harper
Review by Julia C. Fischer

Before Meghan Markle, another American woman became a duchess: Consuelo Vanderbilt. Born in 1877 to Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt, Consuelo led a life of rarefied privilege, though she felt trapped in a gilded cage, unable to make her own decisions. Alva, an overbearing and manipulative mother, forces Consuelo, at only eighteen, to marry the Duke of Marlborough so that her daughter will gain an esteemed title and live in the stately Blenheim Palace in England. Desperately unhappy, Consuelo tries to make the best of her marriage, using her status as duchess to help those less fortunate. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Consuelo yearns for more in her life as she fights for women’s right to vote and to divorce – all the while hoping to find real love. Covering Consuelo’s life from her teenage years through World War II, the book is populated with many historical figures, including Winston and Clementine Churchill, Edith Wharton, Queen Victoria, and Alexandra of Denmark.

Harper’s book is a natural pendant to Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman (2018), which focuses on the life of Alva. When paired together, with Harper’s book read second, the reader gets a well-rounded view of the famous Vanderbilt women and the motivations and desires of both Consuelo and Alva. But Harper’s book can also be enjoyed on its own. With the themes of women’s rights and independence, the reader roots for Consuelo to make a difference and break free from her marriage. In addition, the evolution of Consuelo’s relationship with her mother was touching, as the battleax Alva slowly realizes her role in her daughter’s unhappiness and tries to make amends. Fans of Daisy Goodwin and C.W. Gortner are sure to love this book!