The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (2017)
In The Last Castle, Denise Kiernan tells the story of Biltmore, the largest private home in America, constructed by George Vanderbilt in the late 19th century in Asheville, North Carolina. I visited Biltmore as a teenager, but of course, I didn't remember many of the specifics, so I wanted to read this book to get more information on the house and the family.
I could tell that Kiernan had really done her research. There was so much information within the pages, not just about Biltmore, but about the extended Vanderbilt family and also current events of the time. Sometimes it felt overwhelming, especially with the sheer number of names in the book. I also felt like the actual construction of the house wasn't as big a part of the story as I would have thought. I mean, this house is over 175,000 sq. ft. and it took years to build!
The book was very readable, though, and I flew through it in two days. I loved learning about how George wanted to create not just a house for himself, but an entire village in the area, as well as promote other projects such as forestry. His wife Edith was an intriguing character, particularly after George passed away and it was left to her to manage the estate. She was a big part of the community, whether she was handing out Christmas gifts to the employees or establishing a crafts school that also sold handmade goods. 4 stars
A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler (2018)
A Well-Behaved Woman tells the story of Alva Vanderbilt, who married into the wealthy but socially downtrodden family in order to help her own destitute family.
Alva is a pretty amazing character. She wasn't typical of women of her time. Yes, she married for financial reasons (not uncommon then), but she wasn't content to play the roles society established for her. She worked extremely hard to get the entire Vanderbilt family accepted into high society. Architecture was a passion of hers (the Newport "cottage" Marble House was all her doing), and she was also interested in charitable endeavors. I loved how she was never afraid to be honest; I had to chuckle sometimes at the things that came out of her mouth. I loved the setting, as well; the Gilded Age was a time of great wealth, especially for the Vanderbilts, and it was a fun glimpse into the lives of the super-rich.
The story is well-written and flows nicely, although with many historical fiction novels that focus on the life of a single person, there isn't really a whole lot of plot. No tension or drama, and the story petered out a bit at the end. 4 stars