Portrait of the Gilded Age socialite and suffragist who famously followed her own advice: “First marry for money, then marry for love.”
Doyenne and co-designer of palatial mansions in Manhattan, Long Island, and Newport, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was born Alva Smith in Mobile, Alabama—half a century before the heroine of Fowler’s previous novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (2013). As the novel opens, 21-year-old Alva and her sisters, the children of formerly prosperous parents—all unmarried despite summers in Newport and Europe—are caring for their invalid widower father, facing bankruptcy and the unhappy prospect of letting out rooms. Taking cues from her vivacious pal Consuelo Yznaga (a half-Cuban sugar-cane heiress soon to be married to an English duke), Alva dons an ebony ball gown garnished with goldenrod blossoms to catch the eye of an heir. Not just any heir: William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the richest robber baron in America, is a horseman and yachting enthusiast (who, according to Fowler’s characterization, is not the brightest skipper in the fleet and a compulsive philanderer to boot). His most vexing problem is that Vanderbilt money is too new, barring his family from being “received” in Old Knickerbocker circles. The genuine blossoms on Alva’s dress make W.K. sneeze, but to his credit he recognizes something—call it originality, single-mindedness, intelligence—that will vault his future heirs, if not his boorish grandpa, into the best society. The game is on. Not only will Alva best snooty Caroline Astor at her own game (helped by William’s wedding gift of Catherine the Great’s pearls), she’ll secure suitable marriages for her children and undisputed social rank for herself. For “status gave a woman control over her existence, more protection from being battered about by others’ whims or life’s caprices.” Writing from a close third-person perspective, Fowler spends a good deal of time in Alva’s head, evoking the wrinkles and contradictions in her character—imperious yet self-doubting; stubborn and rigid yet energetic, determined and (even by today’s standard) forward-thinking. Though Alva's involvement in women's causes gets rather short shrift (supplemented in an afterword), the upshot of her platonic attraction to one of her husband's best friends stands in nicely for one of her other proto-feminist remarks: “Pray to God. She will help you.”
Watching Fowler's heroine vanquish the gatekeepers and minions who stand in her way is nothing short of mesmerizing.