Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Well Behaved Woman (Therese Fowler)

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler
We live in some interesting times. From Hollywood to the Hill the balance of power that kept people from coming forward when they were sexually misused or abused has been shifting. More and more people are beginning to realize that if we all stand together, we can hold each other up when times get hard or scary.

And what a fantastic political climate to read A Well Behaved Woman, written by Therese Ann Fowler (author of Z: A Novel of Zelda, which is one of my favorite historical fiction books, and I also highly recommend that one.) The book follows the life of Alva Smith Vanderbilt, as she navigates the world of American Royalty: the New York "Old Rich." The High Society that basically sculpted New York City into what it is today, was similar to the English and French courts in the hierarchy they followed. Alva is a member of a well looked upon family (although not one of the "Best", which is basically the 1% of the 1% of that time. Does the name Astor ring a bell?) trying to make the most advantageous marital match she can. Her family is destitiute and while they are currently able to hide that fact, it is getting hard and harder do so. She has her sights set on William K. Vanderbilt, second born son to the first born son, William Henry, of the famous railroad tycoon Cornelius "the Commodore" Vanderbilt. He seems affable enough on the few occasions she has met him, not that it matters, because if she doesn't make this match, her dying father and two sisters will also be shit out of luck like her.

Do you know who this woman is? This woman is a FUCKING legend. Here's a quick greatest hits on Alva Smith-Vanderbilt-Belmont's life:

  • She not only married a Vanderbilt, but she managed to trick the fucking ASTOR FAMILY into accepting the Commodore and his family into Best Society, where they felt they rightly belonged. 
  • When she found out that her husband was being unfaithful and making a fool of her, instead of doing what society expected and saying "Boys will be boys" while shaking her head, she laid out the terms of the divorce SHE served her husband, ensuring that she got one of their houses, money for the rest of her life to live off of, custody of their children, money for the children for the rest of their lives, and he had to admit to having been adulterous. 
  • After taking Vandy to the cleaners with the divorce, she then started dating AND EVENTUALLY MARRIED his close friend Oliver Belmont.
  • Once her second husband had died, she then joined the women's suffrage movement in England and the US becoming a huge name behind the eventually successful campaigns. 
She rocked in a way that most famous women in power now still can't rock. One of her best quotes is "Just pray to God, she will help you." She had zero tolerance for patriarchical bullshit and was not about to sit quietly and let it continue to happen to her and all of her friends.

There, I just gave you the biggest flash card points from her life, and if you don't already have an absolutely burning desire to immediately read this book then LET ME GO ON...

Fowler is an incredible writer. Her style is smooth without feeling overly glossed. Events unfold organically so that before you know it you've read a quarter of the book and are in desperate need of sustinance. I've loved her since I first read her, and she has such a fantastic way of telling about famous events "from around the corner", so to speak. 

We need more books like this. There are SO. MANY. BOOKS. about Henry VIII and the entire Tudor/ Lancaster drama fest that is English history. (I love those, do not get me wrong, Phillipa Gregory probably made a house payment just from my money alone.) Our history is JUST as effed up as Britain's and we need some really powerful female writers to give us that same style of sweeping multi volume sagas that England is overflowing with. 

So, the Final Breakdown:

The Book
God, this woman is just the spirit animal we need right now. And the story of her life, the will power she used to create her destiny is just so... epic!

The Writing
Fowler is just incredible. I never seem to find fault with her technique.

There were times, which I think is just a pitfall of the genre, where the story gets a little boggy. But overall those parts are few and far between in this work, there's plenty of action to keep you interested.