Book Review: What the Lady Wants
By: Renee Rosen
Published By: NAL Trade
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
Page Count: 448
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Audience: Adult - Historical Fiction
I know little about the Gilded Age aside from the fact that entrepreneurs made millions in various businesses; it was the age of the robber barron. This limited knowledge made this read informative as well as entertaining. I have found a new desire to learn more about this time period as well as Chicago's history. In addition to being largely ignorant of the time period, I also was not familiar with Marshall Field. I love when an author can teach me about historical figures while crafting an appealing story.
This story is largely about Delia Spencer, who will later become the wife of the powerful merchant, Marshall Field. The story opens on the evening of the Great Chicago Fire. Delia and her family are attending a lavish party with the upper crust of Chicago society and it is the first evening that Delia makes the acquaintance of Marshall. The evening quickly derails when the flames lap closer and the party ends in chaos. Delia cannot believe that her city is being engulfed by fire. Everything she has ever known is crumbling to ash before her very eyes. This experience will be pivotal in Delia's life and will serve as a symbol throughout the novel. Delia is constantly having her world destroyed and rebuilt. Her story largely consists of bittersweet moments.
Delia ends up marrying Arthur Caton, the son of a wealthy judge. The family she marries into affords her a life of great wealth and privilege. The amount of money that Arthur and Delia possess was mind blowing. Neither of them worked and yet they were able to take European vacations, raise prize stallions, import furniture, and always stay dressed in the latest fashions. This amount of wealth and extravagance was hard for me to fathom. I cannot imagine living such a life.
Delia's comfortable circumstances come at a heavy price. She is not allowed to follow her heart. Society dictates who she should love and how she should act. Delia is also not supposed to have her own thoughts. Everything she does and says should be a reflection of her husband's will. As much as I would love to go back into the past to see Chicago in this time period, I could never want to linger in a time period when women were seen as second class citizens. I did appreciate that Delia often grapples with the gender roles and attempts to express her own thoughts. She has a brilliant mind with intriguing ideas.
The majority of this novel doesn't focus on Delia's feminist leanings, but rather on her relationship with Marshall Field. These two are drawn together for a variety of reasons, but due to their marriages they are not free to be together. A scandalous affair begins and will plague them both for decades. Chicago society latches on to the affair rumors and all blame is placed on Delia. I had a lot of trouble with this because she isn't blameless by any means, but she is not the only one who contributes to the breaches in marital bliss. Arthur, Marshall, and Marshall's wife, Nannie, all play factors as well. I feel that they should have all shared the blame. To make matters more infuriating, nobody seems to treat Marshall any differently while Delia is ostracized. The double standard made me livid. Living at the top of society was often a cold and lonely place.
I was fascinated by the creation of the modern department store while reading this one. Marshall Field was an innovator in his field. I cannot begin to imagine how amazing seeing his stores for the first time must have been. I also found it interesting that he didn't necessarily see women as equals, but his story catered to female needs. He knew that these women had lots of free time and plenty of their husbands' money to spend. He capitalized by giving women what they wanted while his competition in Chicago refused to allow women to drive their business. In addition to Marshall, it was interesting to see other innovators such as Cyrus McCormick and George Pullman pop up from time to time.
In addition, I found the conflict between the elite and the working class to be intriguing. This is not a new notion, but I was unaware of events like Haymarket Affair. I think the concepts presented during this time period are still relevant today.
It was overly apparent that Renee Rosen did a vast amount of research for this one. I felt like I was transported back to Chicago in the late 1800's. I want to visit Chicago and walk the same streets as Delia. I'm also interested in learning more about Chicago's history. It should be noted that many of the people and events in the novel are historically accurate, but as this is a work of a fiction, there are many characters and events that are inventions of the author. I enjoyed trying to figure out which pieces were true and which pieces had been created for the sake of the plot.
Overall, I enjoyed this one. I found Delia's story to be largely tragic, but I also felt like she was not just a helpless victim. She was the master of her own fate and she walked into some of the pitfalls willingly. I did find that there were some moments in this novel I loved and others that were a bit too slow for me. There were many moments when Delia was dealing with mundane topics. I found these segments to be harder to get through than some of the more interesting events in her life. Like all lives, there is an ebb and flow of action. I also disagreed with many of Delia's choices. These moments made it difficult to stay on her side; she lost a bit of her protagonist luster on those occasions.
One Last Gripe: I felt like most people in Delia's life took advantage of her and she didn't choose to stop it.
Favorite Thing About This Book: the history aspects - I want to know more about Chicago's World Fair
First Sentence: She supposed she fell in love with him at the same time the rest of Chicago did.
Favorite Character: Delia
Least Favorite Character: Mrs. Caton
In late-nineteenth-century Chicago, visionary retail tycoon Marshall Field made his fortune wooing women customers with his famous motto: “Give the lady what she wants.” His legendary charm also won the heart of socialite Delia Spencer and led to an infamous love affair.
The night of the Great Fire, as seventeen-year-old Delia watches the flames rise and consume what was the pioneer town of Chicago, she can’t imagine how much her life, her city, and her whole world are about to change. Nor can she guess that the agent of that change will not simply be the fire, but more so the man she meets that night.…
Leading the way in rebuilding after the fire, Marshall Field reopens his well-known dry goods store and transforms it into something the world has never seen before: a glamorous palace of a department store. He and his powerhouse coterie—including Potter Palmer and George Pullman—usher in the age of robber barons, the American royalty of their generation.
But behind the opulence, their private lives are riddled with scandal and heartbreak. Delia and Marshall first turn to each other out of loneliness, but as their love deepens, they will stand together despite disgrace and ostracism, through an age of devastation and opportunity, when an adolescent Chicago is transformed into the gleaming White City of the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893.