Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: A Well-Behaved Woman

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the VanderbiltsA Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

read Jan 2019
4 ★★★★
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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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Review: The Kennedy Debutante

The Kennedy DebutanteThe Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been wanting to read this for awhile, but hadn’t gotten to it. Last week, I'd finished my book club read and was on Overdrive looking for my next read when I came across this one on my wishlist. It was available so I checked it out. I’m really glad I did!

This book is exactly what I want from historical fiction! I learned something new—a lot, actually! Being a Boomer, I grew up knowing a lot about the Kennedy’s, but while I knew the name ‘Kathleen’, I really didn’t know much about her. In fact, until a few years ago, I think I had her and her older sister, Rosemary, fused into one person in my mind! So this was really an interesting read. The book also propelled me to Google, Wikipedia, etc. in search of more information! And I even picked up two ‘Kick’ Kennedy biographies at the library this weekend! Historical fiction at its best!

The story starts with Kick’s society debut, as she is presented to the King and Queen. I loved reading about the ‘requirements’ of society in the era, and how mother Rose positioned her family to be insinuated into society. In many ways the book reminded me of the ‘rules’ of Gilded Age society that I had just read about in A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts. Kick turns out to be a bit of a rebel, falling in love with a Protestant who would be exactly what her mother was looking for in a son-in-law had he been a Catholic. Her mother, and to a leser extent, her father, go to great links to keep the couple apart. I guess I was a little surprised to learn just how rigid her mother was, not only about this, but about many other things. While she had a reputation as a great mother with an ideal family, that was a smoke and mirrors image. She often placed appearances and her desires before her children’s well-being, at least in this story.

It was also interesting to read about the events leading up to WWII, especially from the perspective of the British. Father Joe Kennedy was the US Ambassodor to Britain at the time, so Kick was in London with her family in the years leading up to the war. One thing that really surprised me was the calm approach Londoners took to the bombings. They were prepared, and it was always in the back of there minds, but they seemed to take it in stride, going about their lives as normally as they could under the circumstances. I guess I’d pictured them as cowering in shelters just waiting for the next bombs to fall. I’m sure I would have!

Really, I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about the book. Rose was not a pleasant person, and of course I didn’t like the ending, but this story is based on fact, and a lot of times facts aren’t happy. If you are curious about Kathleen, a Kennedy afficiando, or just want to read more about the atmosphere in the times leading up to the war, pick up this book! You won’t be sorry!

read Jan 2019
5 ★★★★★
ebook borrowed from library

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Review: America's First Daughter

America's First DaughterAmerica's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had this book on my shelf for at least a year, and haven't gotten around to reading it until now. To be honest, even though I love the cover, and the synopsis is intriguing, I found the length of the book a little intimidating! Finally I picked it up and decided to trudge through it, and I'll admit it; after a quick start with the Jefferson family escaping from the British, the story began to drag a bit. But it quickly picked up again and I suspect the 'drag' was because I was getting to know the characters and the 'lay of the land'; where the plantations were located relative to each other. Once I got past that, the story moved very quickly.

I came to the book with a bit of knowledge—a very tiny bit—about Thomas Jefferson, but knew virtually nothing about his eldest daughter, Patsy Jefferson. What a strong woman she turned out to be! And while I'll always appreciate the sacrifices of Thomas Jefferson and his leadership in forming out nation, I now realize he was a flawed man.

The book was everything I ask of historical fiction. It is very well researched and the story flows smoothly. I learned something new (a lot actually!) and I was inspired to read more about it! The authors also included notes at the back of the book, explaining what liberties they took to move the story along—something I consider mandatory for a book to be good historical fiction! If you enjoy reading about our nation's early days and want to learn more about the women and men who played key roles, you definitely should add this book to your list!

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review: My Husband's Wife

My Husband's WifeMy Husband's Wife by Jane Corry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a hard review to write because my thoughts are mixed. I kind of wish I'd never picked this book up! The prologue pulled me right in. A women (at least I thought it was a women) lies dying on the floor and we are inside her head with her final thoughts. Immediately I wanted to know who she is, who killed her, and why!

The book alternates between the present and the recent past, filling in the background with the events leading to the current situation. The problem is that getting there was kind of boring. I wanted to get through it, because I wanted to know what happened, but I wasn't really enjoying getting there very much.

I'm not sure why this was; possibly a combination of facts. There was too much detail at times, and the book was a little too long. I think the story could have been told in fewer words. But another problem was that I don't think there was one likable character in the group, at least among the main characters. There were some auxiliary characters that I didn't dislike, but because they were bit players, they weren't well developed. It's possible that had I gotten to know them better, I wouldn't have liked them either.

The result of this is that, while I really wanted to know what happened, and who lay dying on the floor, it didn't really matter to me who it was, because whoever it was, was getting what he or she deserved! My only regret is that the others weren't also dying on the floor!

As much as I didn't appreciate this book as a solitary read, I think it would be an excellent book club selection. There is so much to discuss; poor decisions by the characters, motivations, justice; so much to discuss here. Often it is the discussion that makes a book worthwhile, and that is certainly true in this case!

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