Monday, January 14, 2008

Book review: Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

I have to say that being a receptionist has its benefits. Sure, the pay stinks, and it’s hardly rocket science to answer the phone and sort and stamp mail, but on the other hand it leaves me a lot of time to devote to my passion, reading. I’d say that I read two to three books a week. I also love writing about the books I’ve read. So here’s a book that I finished reading this weekend: a nonfiction book called Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.

In Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart gives her reader a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating women: Alva, the daughter of a less-than-400-family married into the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt clan and made them into what they became. She was a forcefully dynamic woman who encouraged her children to be independent, yet stifled them. Consuelo, on the other hand, emerges as a more sympathetic character; married to the Duke of Marlborough at age 18, she was forced to give up the man she loved so that her mother's ambitions could be realized. The subject matter is fascinating, but I thought that the book was a little too dense at times; I thought that the author tried to bite off too much at once. Her original intent had been to make this book solely into a biography of Consuelo, but was misguidedly advised to include Alva as well. The result is that the book covers a large period of time (the 1850s to the 1960s) and tends to wander a bit. Also, Consuelo's story covers about ¾ of the book, while Alva, who was probably a more interesting woman, is left in the background.

There were little things that I didn't like about this book as well. First there were too many French words that were left untranslated. Secondly, the author goes into meticulous and I might even add sleep-inducing detail over every. Single. Little. Thing, which took away from my enjoyment of the book.

However, I truly enjoyed the subject matter. After all, who doesn’t like reading about the lives of the rich and famous? I also thought the book was well-researched; it turns out that the mag rag Town Topics (an early precursor to the tabloid magazine) had a lot to say about the Vanderbilts, and believe it or not, sometimes their information was actually correct. I thought it was interesting, too, how society doyennes created the idea of a press agency, working the press according to their own agendas. It was kind of a Catch-22, in its own way.

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