Ever since Jim and I went to Biltmore Estate for our honeymoon over two decades ago, I have had a strange fascination with the Vanderbilt family. Therefore, I opened Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman, her story about Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, with eagerness and anticipation. Unfortunately, what I found between its pages was unexpectedly boring and a lot more disappointing than expected.
Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont is a remarkable woman and should have an equally remarkable novel written about her. Instead, I feel as if Ms. Fowler spent most of the time describing the luxurious lifestyle of the Vanderbilts and their ilk. Parties that cost millions, yachts bigger than houses, clothes the likes of which most people will never see – each gets lengthy and loving descriptions.
But Alva was more than her name and her clothes. Ms. Fowler does show this, but I feel that it is not her focus. We see nothing of Alva’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement; the story ends before that part of her life. While we do see Alva’s fascination and involvement in architecture, including excruciating details about Le Petit Chateau, it feels like more of a side story than an homage to someone who challenged the status quo.
One area in which Ms. Fowler deviates from this, however, is in Alva’s divorce and remarriage. Done at a time when society women did not divorce and women everywhere were taught to turn a blind eye to a husband’s unfaithfulness, Ms. Fowler shows Alva’s determination not only to right a wrong but also to set an example for unhappy wives everywhere. It takes guts to flout convention, and here is one area in which Ms. Fowler does justice to Alva’s courage and temerity.
While Ms. Fowler does expand beyond what one could learn from Alva’s Wikipedia page, A Well-Behaved Woman still feels too trite for a woman of Alva’s strength of character and commitment to helping others. One too many descriptions of the parties, the houses, the servants, and her travels seemingly counteracts her dedication to women’s suffrage and the poor. While still an interesting story, it is not what I was hoping to read.