My rating: 4 of 5 stars
read Jan 2019
ebook borrowed from library
I read this one for an online book club I participate in. I’d heard good things about it, but didn’t have it high on my to read list, so I probably would not have gotten to it for a long time. That would have been sad, because I very much enjoyed the book.
This is historical fiction based on the life of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva came from a good family, a well-respected family, but a family that had suffered financial reversals. Her mother was dead and her father quite ill, so Alva and her younger sisters had no means of support. Alva saw it as her duty to marry well so that her sisters would not go hungry. She set her sights on Willam Vanderbilt, a son of the wealthy Vanderbilt family. Unlike the Smiths, the Vanderbilts had plenty of money, but no social standiing. All of their money could not buy their way into High Society, led by Mrs. Astor. Consequently, William was all for a marriage with Alva, who he saw as the ticket to his family’s entrance into society.
The bulk of the story takes place during the years of Alva’s marriage to William, and her journey into the upper ranks of society. It is a fascinating look into the workings of high society at the time; who was out and who was in, marriages of convenience, unfaithfulness, and partying. The Vanderbilts were know for building lavish mansions, some of which still stand today. Alva was very involved in the design of her family’s mansion, and reading the details of the planning and architecture were fascinating. (I’ve added The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home, the story of Willam’s brother George's home, Biltmore, to my reading list!)
I learned a lot from reading this novel—a keynote of good historical fiction for me. I had not realized that the Vanderbilts were not considered ‘good enough’ to be admitted into upper echelons of society. And while I knew the name Vanderbilt, I mostly knew them as a wealthy family whose descendants include Gloria Vanderbilt and her son, Anderson Cooper. I was not aware that many of the well-known institutions of today are associated with them—Vanderbilt University, Madison Square Gardens, the Belmont Stakes (this is actually associated with Alva’s second husband), among them.
After the death of her second husband, Alva became involved in the women’s sufferage movement, however the book barely touches on this aspect of Alva’s life. While she was well-respected by suffragettes, it seems others did not hold her in high esteem. I would have liked to have learned more about this aspect of her life.
This will make a great selection for book clubs, both those that want to have a serious discussion about social mores of the day and those that are just looking for a fun read!
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