A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN.
By Therese Anne Fowler St. Martin's $27.99, 400 pages ISBN 9781250095473 Audio, eBook available
In comparison to our current crop of dingy squillionaires and robber barons, the Vanderbilts, Belmonts and Astors were so much more entertaining, with their monstrous Fifth Avenue chateaux and even more monstrous "cottages," their frivolous costume balls, their genteel contempt for the hoi polloi and their obsession with bloodlines, both their own and those of their thoroughbred racehorses. Therese Anne Fowler's biographical novel isn't about careless people, but people who care too much about the wrong stuff.
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont married for money, as did just about everyone else in her set. She hasn't a scintilla of a sense of humor. She is a hypocrite and a coward. She may feel bad about letting her lady's maid go because she is black, or for shunning one of her friends because he penned a silly book, but she does it anyway. She all but imprisons her beautiful, dimwitted daughter, Consuelo, because she wants her to marry the Duke of Marlborough and not the older, less well-heeled Winty Rutherfurd. (Fowler leaves out how Alva used to beat Consuelo with a riding crop but leaves in how she threatens to shoot Rutherfurd dead.) Fowler skillfully depicts both the doomed, cruel, ridiculous society that Alva married into and how she tries, in her plodding yet ruthless way, to navigate it. It is ever so tempting to believe that Edith Wharton's ghastly Undine Spragg contains some of Alva's DNA.
But don't feel sorry for the Vanderbilt women. Both Alva and Consuelo lived to ripe old ages, and both gained some wisdom, no doubt born of pain. The end of Fowler's absorbing book finds them at a suffragette rally in London's Hyde Park, spellbound by the words of a true heroine who really knew how to buck the patriarchy. As the book says, "[Alva] was no Emmeline Pankhurst." Indeed.