The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.
Alva Smith, her southern family destitute after the Civil War, married into one of America’s great Gilded Age dynasties: the newly wealthy but socially shunned Vanderbilts. Ignored by New York’s old-money circles and determined to win respect, she designed and built 9 mansions, hosted grand balls, and arranged for her daughter to marry a duke. But Alva also defied convention for women of her time, asserting power within her marriage and becoming a leader in the women's suffrage movement.
With a nod to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, Therese Anne Fowler paints a glittering world of enormous wealth contrasted against desperate poverty, of social ambition and social scorn, of friendship and betrayal, and an unforgettable story of a remarkable woman. Meet Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, living proof that history is made by those who know the rulesand how to break them.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
THERESE ANNE FOWLER is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Raised in the Midwest, she moved to North Carolina in 1995. She holds a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University.
Read an Excerpt
WHEN THEY ASKED her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredations, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts — when they asked why she did the extreme things she'd done, Alva said it all began quite simply: Once there was a desperate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out. It was 1874. Summertime. She was twenty-one years old, ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch.
* * *
"Stay together now, girls," Mrs. Harmon called as eight young ladies, cautiously clad in plain day dresses and untrimmed hats, left the safety of two carriages and gathered like ducklings in front of the tenement. The buildings were crowded and close here, the narrow street's bricks caked with horse dung, pungent in the afternoon heat. Soiled, torn mattresses and broken furniture and rusting cans littered the alleys. Coal smoke hung in the stagnant air. Limp laundry drooped on lines strung from one windowsill to the next along and across the entire block from Broome Street to Grand. The buildings themselves seemed to sag.
"Stay together?" Alva's sister Armide said. "Where does she imagine we'd go?"
"To the devil, surely," one of the other girls replied. "Like everyone here."
The speaker was Miss Lydia Roosevelt of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, a cousin or niece (Alva couldn't remember which) of one of the charity group's founders. She would tell every Roosevelt ancestral detail if asked. Alva wouldn't ask.
Among the "everyone" here were numerous haggard, bundle-laden girls and women moving to and from doorways; a few old men propped on stoops or reclined against walls; and the dirtiest assortment of children Alva had ever seen — barefooted, most of them — playing in the street.
Miss Roosevelt's act-alike friend Miss Hadley Berg said, "To be fair, what else can you expect? These people are born inferior."
"You don't really believe that," Alva said.
"I don't believe what?" Miss Berg asked, adjusting her hat to keep her face in shadow. "That they're inferior?" She pointed to a little boy with greasy hair and scabbed knees who picked his teeth while he watched them. "That their poverty is natural?"
"Yes," Armide said. "Certainly circumstances play a role."
Alva glanced at her. The two of them knew this well. If their circumstances didn't improve dramatically and soon, they and their two younger sisters might be the ones living in a single room with no running water, doing their business in a dim alley or open courtyard where everyone could see. Already they were rationing food, restricting their entertainments, managing with two servants when they'd once had nine — and disguising these truths as best they could.
The group waited while Mrs. Harmon directed the coachmen to unload their baskets, each of which held twenty muslin bags tied with twine. Every bag contained a small sewing kit of two needles, thread, pins, and a thimble; a bar of soap; a short book of simple, uplifting poems; a lollipop; and four pennies. They'd spent the morning assembling the kits and now were to hand them out to some of Manhattan's poorest children — foundlings, runaways, immigrants, orphans, street urchins, what have you. Mrs. Harmon said that once able to sew, a highly skilled person could earn as much as ten dollars a week. Even the younger ones could earn twenty cents in a day, which might make all the difference.
Miss Roosevelt said, "You can clean up the white ones and send them to school, but it's not as though the boys will become gentlemen. They can't. It's not how God made them."
Miss Berg added, "If this sort could resist going for the bottle when difficulties come —"
"That's just it," said Miss Roosevelt. "The Irish are practically born drunk, and their men — why, drink is a part of everything they do. Even the women are susceptible. We had to fire a maid for it last week. My mother caught her roaring drunk and stuffing silverware into her pockets!"
"The Germans are nearly as bad," said Miss Berg.
Armide said, "We did have a terrible German governess ..."
"Did? Who tends your sisters now?" asked Miss Roosevelt.
"Armide does," Alva said. "She's very capable, and with our mother gone, the girls prefer her."
"Four motherless, unmarried girls." Miss Roosevelt shook her head. "So unfortunate."
"But it's the Jews who are the worst," Miss Berg continued. "Not with drink; I think liquor is against their beliefs. They're ... sneaky and underhanded. Conniving, that's the word."
Alva said, "But white Christian Americans are perfect, I suppose."
Miss Roosevelt rolled her eyes. "We're simply stating facts, Miss Smith. Perhaps if you were better educated, you'd recognize how stupid you sound."
Armide stepped between them. "I think Mrs. Harmon is ready."
"All right then, girls," said Mrs. Harmon as she joined them. "I remind you that good Christians are generous in deed and word." She directed them each to take a basket and choose a partner, then said, "Every one of us can improve ourselves, no matter the circumstances of our births. Given sufficient tools and training, we can all be clean, responsible persons."
"Yes, Mrs. Harmon," they chirped.
Clean and responsible. That might be the most Alva and her sisters could hope to be unless at least one of them married well — a difficult achievement when there were no offers. Having first come to New York from the now-disgraced South and then returned here after spending the war years in Paris, the Smith girls were no longer quite good enough for Knickerbockers, those well-to-do gentlemen whose families were deep-rooted Manhattanites. Nor were they important enough to attract the social-climbing nouveaux riches now coming to New York in droves. They'd had to aim for the narrow in-between.
Yet even that had proven profitless. Here was the trouble: they were four perfectly nice young ladies among a throng of others of equal merit, and there were so many fewer gentlemen to try for since the war. Given all of this, Alva had reluctantly agreed to participate in a marriage plot for one of those in-between fellows, to be concluded a few weeks' hence.
Mrs. Harmon entered the building and the young ladies filed in behind her, so that they were all standing inside the oppressive, odorous hallway. The air here was much warmer than outside. Mrs. Harmon pressed her handkerchief to her neck and forehead in turn. Miss Roosevelt pressed hers to her nose.
Mrs. Harmon said, "If we act efficiently, we won't need to be here long." She assigned Miss Roosevelt and Miss Berg to the first floor, and then worked her way down in rank, up in floors. "You Smith girls, you'll have the fourth," she said, then gave a nod toward the building's dark interior. "All right? I'll be outside if you need me."
"I'm very sorry for your luck," Miss Roosevelt said.
Miss Berg said, "Yes, too bad. I hear they house the lepers and idiots up top."
"Even lepers and idiots deserve our charity," Armide replied, giving Alva a look of warning to leave it alone.
Alva marched up the stairs. She would not give them the satisfaction of believing she was offended. First floor, fourth floor — what difference was there, really? Circumstances. Nothing inherent.
Armide was close behind Alva. The scent of urine was stronger now, trapped in the stairwell along with the hot air. Trying to breathe through only her mouth as she went, Alva hooked the basket in her elbow and used both hands to keep her skirts off the greasy treads. Below, the others were already knocking on doors. Good afternoon, madam ...
Their instructions: two girls to a floor, a stop at each dwelling, where they were to knock politely; announce yourselves; inquire about children in the home. If invited inside, stay in the doorway and avoid touching anything. Lice and fleas jump! They were to offer one kit for every child over the age of six but under the age of fourteen. At fourteen you were on your own. At fourteen, you might already have a means to avoid being removed from your home and shipped out from Grand Central Depot to lord knew where, sent to work on farms or ranches or plantations or in mines. Alva had heard that some Southern families were taking children to replace the slaves they'd lost in the Emancipation. Some girls who were sent west, to the territories, were being put to service as wives. She imagined it: orphaned and exiled and married off to an old pockmarked tobacco-spitting homesteader, rising before dawn to milk the goat or cow, a runny-nosed baby on one hip and another on the way ... Alva was glad that Julia, her youngest sister, was fifteen.
She and Armide reached the dim fourth-floor landing and paused to get their breath. There was a strange metallic scent here, pungent and sharp. Alva started to remark on it, then spotted a young woman lying inert beside the second door. Blood, so dark that it looked black, had pooled around her sodden skirts. Armide gasped, turned, and ran down the stairs, calling for Mrs. Harmon to find help.
Trembling, Alva knelt at the girl's shoulder and took her hand. It was cool and pliant. She watched the girl's chest; it didn't move. She put her ear to the girl's breast. Silence.
Alva sat back. Her hands were shaking, her whole body trembling so much that she put her arms around herself and clamped them to her ribs.
Dead. After being frightened and in pain.
At a party Alva had been to a few years earlier, two women of middle age, well fed and well turned out with pearls and furs, remarked on a tour they'd taken of the Five Points slums not long before:
Wasn't it fascinating?
Yes, horrific! Imagine that being your life — a short one, probably.
People are simply dying to get out of there!
Then laughter at their cleverness. Alva had smiled, too, as yet unaware of how narrow the gap between privilege and poverty. Dying to get out, ha!
Now she sat at a dead girl's side. Had the girl been lying here terrified by what was happening to her, or relieved by what was possibly her best prospect of escape?
The sound of someone running up the stairs —
"Katie?" said a girl whose resemblance to this one was unmistakable. "Oh, no, no, no —" Alva moved aside as she kneeled down and grabbed the dead girl's shoulders, attempted to lift her. "Katie, come on," she said. The dead girl's head lolled backward. The other girl's eyes were panicked. "They said someone went for a doctor, but it could be hours. Where's she bleeding from? What can we do?"
"It's too late," Alva said. "I'm so sorry. She wasn't breathing when I — We were too late."
"This can't be!" the girl cried. "What happened to her? She was perfect when I left this morning."
"I am so terribly sorry."
In Alva's purse was perhaps fifty cents. Her hands shook as she held it out to the girl. "There's not a lot here, but —"
The girl slapped it away. "Money's no fix!"
"It can help —"
"You people. Get out of here," she said. Her face was red and streaked with tears. "Go!"
"I'm sorry," Alva said again, and left the girl there to wait for help that would not help, her words sounding in Alva's mind. Money was no fix for that girl, true — But please, God, she thought, let it be for me.CHAPTER 2
THE OTHER MARRIAGEABLE girls were too lovely, all of them, those rose-milk complexions and hourglass waists and silks that gleamed like water in sunlight. The Greenbrier resort's dining room was filled with such girls, there in the company of clever mothers whispering instruction on the most flattering angle for teacup and wrist, and sit straighter, smile brightly, glance coyly — lashes down. The young men, who were outnumbered three to one, wore crisp white collars and linen coats and watched and smiled and nodded like eager buyers at a Thoroughbred market.
Miss Consuelo Yznaga, Alva's closest friend since their childhood summers in Newport, Rhode Island, had originated the plot now under way. She'd insisted Greenbrier was the place to secure a husband — for Alva. Consuelo, with her money, alliances, and beauty, was in no rush for herself. She had no need to be. Her father had so far managed to keep his wealth.
The Yznaga money came from Cuban sugarcane. Each summer before the war, the family decamped Cuba for temperate Newport, often renting a cottage on the same road as the cottage the Smiths took to escape Manhattan's muggy heat. Mr. Yznaga liked to say, "A man must be a faithful steward of the land that built his fortune," a veiled criticism of Alva's father, who was better suited to selling the family plantation's cotton than to growing it. The international markets were in New York, and so Murray Smith had settled his wife and girls there. Alva and Consuelo, unconcerned with any tension between their fathers, had attached themselves to each other with the unreserved love that carefree childhood encourages, their similarities far more important than their differences.
During the war years, they met in Paris for a few weeks each spring. When apart, they corresponded by post. Then Consuelo's father, seeing new business opportunities, bought a house in Manhattan soon after Alva's family returned there, reuniting the friends. Alva knew Consuelo's heart as well as she knew her own. Nothing could divide them. Even as troubles had come for the Smiths, Consuelo remained the steadfast friend she had always been.
And now she had decided on William K. Vanderbilt for Alva, having first gotten acquainted with him while in Geneva the year before — W.K., they called him, a young man whose wealthy family, now in its third Manhattan generation, was having little success gaining entry into best society. As Consuelo had presented the matter to him, Alva's family's spotless ancestry combined with the Vanderbilts' money and influence would tip the social scale, and the Vanderbilts and Smiths could rise together.
This was an optimistic prediction.
Still, by Consuelo's measure, W.K. was receptive to her campaign and receptive to Alva. By Alva's, he was a cheerful puppy; in the few times they'd met, he had given her little more than a happy sniff before gamboling away. Oh, he seemed to like her well enough. But he seemed to also like playing pranks with his friends and racing four-in-hand in Central Park and doing card tricks and crewing in yacht races and talking jovially to attractive young ladies, of whom she was merely one among many. Alva Smith? She's a clean, responsible girl, he'd tell his friends, and then attach himself to someone with better adjectives.
"Oh, look." Consuelo pointed to a trio of men entering the broad, high-ceilinged room. "I told you he would be here." She beckoned a waiter to their table and handed the man her card, on which she had already jotted a note.
She said, "The one in the blue coat over there, Mr. Vanderbilt — say we'd like him and his friends to join us."
The waiter left and Alva sighed heavily.
"Are you anxious?" Consuelo said. "Don't be. He'll come."
"And then what?"
"Then you hold your teacup like so —"
"And stop frowning! 'A pale, smooth, pleasing visage is required of every young woman who hopes to attract a husband of quality and taste' — I read that in a manners guide. Not to mention frequent frowning ages you six years. It's been scientifically proven." Consuelo paused, and frowned. "Oh dear, what's this?"
Alva turned to see another waiter arrive at the gentlemen's table while their own waiter was still making his way across the vast room. The first waiter handed something to W.K. and indicated a nearby table of ladies from whom the something had evidently come. As the men stood, W.K., with his dark blond hair and dimpled smile, wasted no time, barely pausing to take Consuelo's card from the just-arrived waiter and pocketing it as he went.
"Well," Alva said, facing Consuelo again, "so much for your plotting."
Consuelo said, "So much for your faith! I concede that Theresa Fair is beautiful. Imagine having hair that red! But Mrs. Fair is so overweening that she's certain to scare off any but the most desperate man."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Well-Behaved Woman"
Copyright © 2018 Therese Anne Fowler.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Truly enjoyed this book and learning about the lives of the uber wealthy... especially as it pertains to Alma Vanderbilt. I was disappointed when it ended. Highly recommended.
4.5. A fabulous read and great historical fiction of the Gilded Age and Alva Vanderbilt. I truly enjoyed this novel about Alva Vanderbilt, the daughter of a destitute Southern plantation owner who fell on hard times during Reconstruction after the Civil War and later the wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, the business magnate and railroad baron who was the wealthiest American at the time of his death. This is a wonderful snapshot into the Gilded Age and lives of the upper crust of New York society from the post Civil War times to the early 20th century. But the book is really about Alva’s resolve and strength to become a formidable woman who accomplished a great deal although initially shunned because of her roots, and later as a member of the “scandalous” Vanderbilt clan. In her way, largely driven by her “impoverished” young years, Alva Vanderbilt was a trailblazer and not one to be dominated by the traditional male oriented culture. Among other things, Alva was able to get the wealthiest family in America (who had been snubbed by the Astors and others) accepted into the upper echelons of New York society. By her intuitive and shrewd insights, architectural acumen, feminism, and sponsor of many charitable causes for the poor and unloved, Alva was a game changer. That is not to say she had an easy life, even after marrying into the Vanderbilt family. She had many disappointments and setbacks, but that didn’t stop her. A great read!
As a thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced readers copy. I shall give an honest review of this novel. A Well-behaved woman was the first novel by Therese Anne Fowler I have read and it certainly will not be my last. The novel is set around the late 1800’s and enters the Gilded Age in American society. The novels pace was comfortable for I felt it seemed like that of authors to that period ex. Edith Wharton and Henry James. Like her predecessors she examined not only the society featured but the individual themselves. The characterization of Alva I felt was done well. She was relatable but distinctive in personality compared to the others. She had a dynamic sense of self and this intrigued me throughout the novel. The overall pace and tone seemed familiar to turn of the century novelists I have been accustomed to and enjoyed the characterization to figures of history who have lived. From the beginning, Alva’s mission is to provide for her family who has recently experienced financial difficulties. She can provide for them in the sole approach women at this time took and that was to marry into money. Enter Old and New money. The relationship between Alva and her sister at times brought this character down to earth. By establishing early on this close bond the reader was reminded that she was simply a young woman desperately wanting to assist her family. Unfortunately, the price she paid for security would be one that would shape her life completely. As Alva grows into Womanhood she defines her place in New York society a feat in which she experiences social scorn, betrayal, friendship, and love. This woman held many hats whether that was as a philanthropist, architect or activist in the woman’s suffrage movement. Mrs. Alva Smith Vanderbilt – Belmont led a charmed life definitely one I would love to learn more about. Overall this novel examined social ambition similarly to Madame Bovary, but whose leading lady holds more heart and grit. I recommend this novel to lovers of Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Henry James. I gave this novel four out of five stars.
Alva Smith was raised in high society to expect nothing but the best prior to her mother's death. After her untimely demise, Alva knew that her family's survival rested on her ability to marry well. She snagged a Vanderbilt, a family of immense wealth who needed her society connections. Alva eventually raised the family to the highest levels with her ingenuity and knowing how to play the game. Alva Vanderbilt had everything money could buy but lacked in one of the most essential things that it cannot, love. She stayed above reproach to maintain the family's position in society, until a line was crossed that made her question the past twenty years. After that, she took the course of her life into her own hands. Much like Fowler's Zelda Fitzgerald, Alva Vanderbilt is a familiar name yet an unknown personality. Fowler sheds light on an intriguing woman who bent society to her will even when she stepped out of bounds. It is important to see these women for themselves as opposed to an ornament for the famous men they married. I enjoyed the story and had no previous knowledge of Alva, but would have like to read more about her post-Vanderbilt years.
Alva Smith is one of four sisters. Their mother has passed away and their father, Murray Smith, had owned cotton plantations which at one time had made him a very wealthy man. Now, he is dying and his wealth has dwindled to very little. Trying to keep up appearances, the sisters go without to keep their father fed, warm, and with access to his medicine. Alva knows she must find a wealthy husband soon to have money to help her family. The Smith family is cultured but not part of the Knickerbockers. Alva wished that the Smith family could have moved to London because some of her friends were marrying titled men. Alva’s friend, Consuelo Yznaga, feels that Greenbriar is the place for Alva to find a husband since she has limited funds. The two young ladies have been close friends. Consuelo has lots of money and is in no rush to get married. Her family money came from Cuban sugarcane. Consuelo thinks Alva should marry Willam K. Vanderbilt. William’s grandfather is Commodore Vanderbilt and is extremely wealthy. William’s father is also wealthy, but his uncle, C.J. Vanderbilt is a gambler who doesn’t pay his debts, and he also has epilepsy. Using the last of the family’s funds, Alva wears a special dress to a soiree where she meets William Vanderbilt. He is quite taken with her and before long proposes to her and she accepts. Now, William’s mother is telling her how things are done in their family. After their marriage, Alva has two children and takes a great interest in architecture. Soon, she suggests that the family members build homes near one another on 5th Avenue in New York. Although Alva enjoys her wealthy life, she is still frustrated because she is not accepted by Mrs. Astor. As time goes on, Alva gives birth to another child and when the Commodore and William’s father die, the sons and daughters inherit even more money. Alva’s brother-in-law, George Vanderbilt decides to build Biltmore Castle in Asheville, North Carolina. We follow Alva through her marriage to William. She is an outspoken person and very shrewd. The Vanderbilt family has numerous children and builds huge homes all with the lavish furnishings and modern conveniences. But is money enough to keep her happy especially when her husband strays? This is a very interesting story of a well-known woman of the Gilded Age. I admire her strength and ability to stick to her beliefs and stand up for her rights. This is not just about the life of one person, but it takes in the historical events going on around her during this time period. I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I did. Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Thank you NetGalley and St Martin's Press for a free copy of this book to review! The Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers, The Portrait of a Lady...where did Edith Wharton and Henry James find their inspiration? They based their memorable characters on their acquaintances and friendships with New York's elite society of the Gilded Age. And perhaps no one generated as much inspiration as Alva Vanderbilt. As young Alva Smith, her family had a good name and reputation but was cash poor after the civil war. The Vanderbilt family had new wealth but desired entrance into New York society. Alva's marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt saved her siblings from poverty and in turn she helped raised the Vanderbilt name to equal footing with the Astors and the other old moneyed names in New York. It was not an easy task or something that her marriage alone accomplished but Alva was astute and knew how to manipulate people. And she embraced the social media of her day, the newspapers, making sure that she fed them details of her society events to her advantage. The immense amount of wealth of the Vanderbilt family had was absolutely staggering even by todays standards. Alva used that wealth for charity but also to indulge in designing and building beautiful homes. But with all the wealth she had, what she was lacking was love in her marriage. From what facts you read about Alva's life online and elsewhere, you might find it hard to imagine any need for empathy or compassion for her. But in this novel, the author paints Alva in such a way that we can truly feel sympathetic for her, as she proves money doesn't buy happiness and love, especially in a time when women are held to double standards. However, Alva is by no means weak. Instead she takes actions that break rules for women of her time and class, and seizes the happiness she longs for. Much of the novel covers Alva's married life, and only the last couple chapters delve into her taking part in the leadership of the suffragette movement in its earliest days. I turned to some online reading for more information and learned that along with Alice Paul, she helped organize the first picket in front of the White House. Alva threw tons of money at the cause; bailing out jailed suffragettes, funding marches and more. But had the author wrote about that phase of Alva's amazing life, the novel would have been twice as thick. Instead she focuses on the years Alva spent as a wife and mother, and by doing so, you can appreciate Alva's journey to become a leader in the suffragette movement all the more. I thoroughly enjoyed this one!
This book is about the life of Alva Vanderbilt., wife of William Vanderbilt. Alva's family used to be wealthy but her mother had died and her father had lost all of their wealth. Alva, her three sisters and her father are starving, and it is up to Alva to take charge and provide for her family by marrying well. William Vanderbilt's family has been shunned by Mrs Astor and the rest of society and Alva's family would give them the family history that would help to elevate the Vanderbilt family in society. Alva not only achieves that, but also designed and built 9 mansions, was a major player in the women's suffrage movement, and demonstrated a power in her marriage that defied the norms of that time. I was not familiar with the particulars of the Vanderbilt family, so I was fascinated by this book. I could not put it down. Alva was such an inspiring woman, and excellent example of a feminist before that became a popular thing. This book is definitely a must-read!
Alva and her family are in dire straits. Her father is sick and they are out of money. It is up to her to land a wealthy husband and keep her family in the style they are accustomed. Alva marries William Vanderbilt. But, as the marriage continues Alva realizes money does not buy happiness. Alva’s marriage is not what she imagined. The Vanderbilt’s are considered nouveau rich and they are completely shunned by the Gilded Age dynasties. She struggles to have her family accepted into society. This seems frivolous to me, however the author did an outstanding job relating this struggle and what it means to Alva. She needs to be accepted to keep her marriage. Then as time goes on and Alva grows, she understands there is more to life than society and William. She fights for what she wants and what she believes in. She is a lady before her time! The prose of this author is outstanding. I can just picture the ladies with their parasols walking through New York shopping at Tiffany’s. The wealth in this book is phenomenal. The author portrays this alongside the vast amount of poverty in the slums of New York. The story is a little long-winded and bogs down in the middle. But Alva with her intellect and her strength keep you absorbed in this tale till the very end. I received this novel from St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley for a honest review.
“Alva said it all began quite simply: Once there was a desperate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out. It was 1874. Summertime. She was twenty-one years old, ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch.” At the same time, the Vanderbilts had wealth but no standing in New York Society. The Commodore was born poor and had a meagre education. By turning a small ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan into a vast shipping and railroad empire, he became one of the wealthiest Americans in history. Alva Smith became the Vanderbilt’s ticket into the society that they craved. Her family had the standing but had lost their fortune during the Civil War. Her marriage to William Vanderbilt was one of convenience for both families. Although she produced three heirs and introduced the Vanderbilts into society, hers was a loveless marriage. Therese Anne Fowler portrays Alva as a smart, determined, caring woman whose motivation was the survival of her family. With pluck she figured out how to gain her husband’s family the social status that their wealth deserved. As her status grew, she built a new estate on Fifth Avenue in the fifties, an area that was previously undeveloped. The Commodore was so impressed with this that he built his own mansion there, and then had homes built for the rest of his children. Thus, Alva’s influence was felt in the physical realm of a developing Manhattan. She was one of the first female members of the American Institute of Architects. Fowler paints a vivid picture of the Gilded Age, describing everything from clothing to furnishings to homes. Her detailed descriptions give the reader a glimpse into the enormous wealth of these families. Untold in this story is the corruption that ran rampant in that era, as well as the abject poverty that was caused by immigration from impoverished areas of Europe. Writers are supposed to make us think. Fowler did that in spades. There are areas in Alva’s story that I would have liked to know more about—her life with her second husband and the love of her life, Oliver Belmont. Fowler only touches on Alva’s involvement in the Women’s Suffrage Movement at the end of the book. Obviously, Alva Vanderbilt was a woman of great influence in her time. And then there are the other Vanderbilts: Alice and Cornelius and George and Consuela—all fascinating subjects. Maybe Fowler has another historical novel in her quill. My thanks to Netgalley and St. Martins Press for an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I loved this book!