the lat­est books and a Great Read from Therese Anne Fowler

By Therese Anne Fowler, Ha­chette

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

US nov­el­ist and mum-of-two Therese Anne Fowler grew up in a tiny town in Illi­nois near the Mis­sis­sippi River, where her child­hood “was a time of un­fet­tered en­thu­si­asm for the nat­u­ral world”. She was an avowed tomboy with two broth­ers, and was one of the first girls in the US to play Lit­tle League base­ball. Therese was en­cour­aged by her univer­sity pro­fes­sor to write and pub­lished her first work in 2008. But it wasn’t un­til Z, her novel about Zelda Fitzger­ald, ap­peared in 2013 that her ca­reer took off. “I was sur­prised and re­lieved,” she says. Her new novel is about an­other fa­mous fam­ily, the Van­der­bilts.

There’s some­thing ut­terly se­duc­tive about the op­u­lence of Amer­ica’s Gilded Age and it is into this world that Z au­thor Therese Anne Fowler plunges us with the fas­ci­nat­ing Alva Van­der­bilt. This is fic­tion with a clev­erly struc­tured plot, but the au­thor’s im­pec­ca­ble re­search shines through. “I al­ways stick to the facts, inas­much as they can be known,” Therese tells The Weekly. “I had a time­line of doc­u­mented ac­tions and events, and a lot of hearsay, and had to re­con­struct what was pos­si­bly true.”

Alva and her sis­ters have been raised with all the ex­pec­ta­tions of a high so­ci­ety ex­is­tence but with the Smith fam­ily fac­ing bank­ruptcy, mar­ry­ing well is para­mount. It’s 1885 and 21-year-old Alva is de­ter­mined to land heir Wil­liam K. Van­der­bilt, grand­son in the ship­ping and rail­road dy­nasty. This she man­ages quite suc­cess­fully, but not all money is equal, and tak­ing on the stigma of the Van­der­bilts’ new money sheen is a chal­lenge. What’s more, her new hus­band is lack­ing in most de­part­ments in­clud­ing fidelity.

But Alva’s stub­born re­fusal to be quashed by the snobs of high so­ci­ety and strength to wres­tle the reins of her mar­riage is pow­er­ful and tri­umphant, and her jour­ney is very on point with the gen­der bat­tles grip­ping cur­rent global are­nas. Ul­ti­mately Alva de­fies con­ven­tion in all she does, not least be­com­ing a lead­ing suf­fragette, and watch­ing her forge that path is breath­tak­ing.

“My point of en­try was an ar­ti­cle I came across about Glo­ria Van­der­bilt, who most of us know as a fash­ion de­signer and the mother of news­man An­der­son Cooper,” says Therese. “When she was a child, her aunt [Gertrude Van­der­bilt Whit­ney] sued her mother for cus­tody. It’s quite a story and made me won­der, who are these peo­ple? I went down the rab­bit hole and came up a few gen­er­a­tions back in 19th cen­tury New York, with Alva. I dis­cov­ered that the im­age we’re al­ways given of her just didn’t match her ac­tions, and be­came fas­ci­nated as to how and why that might be.

“I found the Gilded Age spell­bind­ing. While there’s no ques­tion about the ex­cesses, ex­treme wealth also gave rise to some of the most re­mark­able homes and fash­ions. In­te­rior de­sign rose to the level of art, as did women’s fash­ion. And the ar­chi­tec­ture! Come for the spec­ta­cle, stay for the story of how a con­sci­en­tious wo­man nav­i­gated her life amid all of that.”

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