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A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts

Updated: Dec 23, 2018

A fascinating and fabulous story of a strong, independent woman well ahead of her time.



Alva Smith’s mother was deceased, her father was ailing and her family was quickly becoming destitute. Her family‘s good name was useless on its own. She needed to quickly marry someone with money. Alva, with the help of her best friend Consuelo Yznaga, was able to secure a proposal from the young William K. Vanderbilt. The hope from the Vanderbilt family was that Alva, because of her name, would put the Vanderbilt’s in good stead with the Astor’s. The matriarch of the Astor family, Caroline, known as the “queen of the elite” turned a cold shoulder to Alva upon their first introduction.

After their marriage in 1875, Alva worked tirelessly on recognition and acceptance by the Astor’s. Her success came at a 1883 costume ball, at Alva’s newly constructed Fifth Avenue Mansion. Caroline Astor acquiesces to attending for her daughter’s sake. It was a huge coup for Alva Vanderbilt, who was raising three children and involved in countless good causes. Alva built a second mansion at Newport, while William was off playing at being rich. Alva was determined to marry her only daughter to England’s most eligible duke and stops at nothing to make it possible. Alva means to do right by all, but sometimes a well-behaved woman has had enough. Sometimes being well-behaved is just not the right thing to do.

“A person might easily come to think that this ball, this house, Alva’s efforts to improve culture and to beautify New York, were only about Alva wanting to elevate herself, with the Vanderbilt family getting the secondary benefits of her rise. One might conclude that she put personal ambition above all else in order to feed an insatiable vanity. Well, let them, she thought. And intelligent woman in this world takes her chances where she finds them.”


A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN is a fascinating and fabulous historical fiction read. Both the writing and the story are delightful. Alva Smith Vanderbilt was portrayed as the epitome of a strong, independent woman well ahead of her time. Her ability to make things happen and her vulnerabilities were both evident in the book, making her come alive on the page.

My favorite part of the story was when Alva confronted the Vanderbilts at a family dinner and proposed they each build a new mansion on Fifth Avenue with the design of their choice that will stand as a work of art that can be admired by all. She argued with the Vanderbilt men that the benefit would be beautifying New York and employing hundreds of artisans, stonemasons, and carpenters, at a time when unemployment was at an all time high. It was a brilliant strategy.

Author THERESE ANNE FOWLER descriptions were vivid and I felt as if I was in the receiving line with Alva at her 1883 Costume Ball as the various guests ascended the red carpet entry and discussed their costumes with the hostess. The most outrageous costume was a woman dressed as a cat. With rows of white cat tails made into a overskirt and an actual cat’s pelt, head and all fashioned into a hat.

Overall A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN is an enlightening and entertaining read, one that may even have you researching historical pictures as you read. I just had to see what Alva’s glorious mansions of the gilded-age looked like. If you enjoy reading books about strong, independent, forward-thinking, cause-oriented women, Alva Vanderbilt’s story should not be missed. She did so much for so many.

Fowler is a New York Times best selling author of numerous novels including Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Thanks to Netgalley for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

“Yet she understood a truth she could never say aloud: this ideal life was still deficient. She was not wholly content. Perhaps she should be, but contentment, she had learned, lay beyond money’s considerable reach.”

Publisher St. Martin’s Press

Published October 16, 2018

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