cover image A Well-Behaved Woman

A Well-Behaved Woman

Therese Anne Fowler. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-09547-3

As accomplished as its subject, redoubtable socialite and women’s suffrage crusader Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Fowler’s engrossing successor to 2013’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, again showcases her genius for seeing beyond the myths of iconic women. In 1874, 21-year-old Alva Smith and her three sisters have impeccable antecedents but no money. Marrying well being the only way to keep her family secure, Alva sets her sights on railroad scion William K. Vanderbilt. Her effort pays off—William inherits $65 million in 1885—though she finds neither love nor sexual pleasure with her amiable, self-absorbed husband. Wealth offers scope for Alva’s formidable leadership skills: in the same years she bears three children, wins the parvenu Vanderbilts a position in elite society, and collaborates with architect Richard Hunt on a series of influential projects. Impeccably virtuous and self-disciplined, Alva nevertheless faces frequent censure for her lack of feminine deference, particularly when, in her 40s, she refuses to ignore her husband’s infidelity. Instead, she negotiates a divorce, weathers the scandal, and finds new fulfillment. The novel doesn’t sentimentalize its subject’s unsympathetic moments and qualities, and Fowler puts Alva in a clear context, revealing the narrow constraints of her era, class, and gender, and the fierce courage and creativity with which she negotiated them. Though the novel’s lavish sweep and gorgeous details evoke a vanished world, Fowler’s exploration of the way powerful women are simultaneously devalued and rewarded resonates powerfully. 100,000-copy announced first printing. (Oct.)