Being called well-behaved would not necessarily have pleased Alma Smith, yet such a demeanor was vital for her success as the wife of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest and most respected men. Although born to wealth in Alabama, Alva found herself in greatly reduced circumstances when her father lost the family fortune. A fortuitous marriage was her only chance for salvation, so when her dear friend Consuelo played matchmaker, pairing her with William K. Vanderbilt, Alva followed her head instead of her heart into a loveless marriage ... With you-are-there immediacy fueled by assured attention to biographical detail and deft weaving of labyrinthine intrigue, Fowler creates a thoroughly credible imagining of the challenges and emotional turmoil facing this fiercely independent woman.
Does a novel about a historical figure who specialized in arranging advantageous marriages, including her own, strike you as plutocrat porn? Not to worry: Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman eschews the 'Dynasty' approach in favor of a gimlet-eyed look at the vacuity and hypocrisy of life among [high society] ... Fowler’s Alva is tough, cagey and unwilling to settle for the role of high-society ornament — what’s not to like?
...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 ... 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.