the latest books and a Great Read from Therese Anne Fowler
By Therese Anne Fowler, Hachette
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.”