Published by NAL
Publication date: November 4th 2014
For almost as long as I have loved books I have loved fashion and before my career in the book world I was a buyer for a large department store in Atlanta called Rich’s. Remember the good old days when department stores had a name other than Macy’s?! One of the best known in the Midwest was Marshall Field’s and in her new novel, What the Lady Wants, Renée Rosen captures its history and the history of Chicago itself, beginning with The Great Fire in 1871. At the time Chicago was viewed as the dirty upstart trying to take on New York City but for Delia Spencer it is a grand and exciting place. She comes from a family of wealth and through her eyes we watch the city fall and be rebuilt again and again—each time with more opulence, especially in its stores.
Rosen propels Delia’s story with the same speed as the fire that swept through the timber structures of Chicago. When it is time for her to marry and start her own family she does so to Arthur Caton, a lawyer who has made his fortune by selling his telegraph company to Western Union. Through their social lives both Delia and Arthur become well acquainted with Marshall Field and like the rest of the city, watch him build a store whose main purpose is to “give the lady what she wants”. Marshall enjoys Delia’s perspective on improving his store and their relationship becomes an affair that stretches for the next three decades and causes a furor in Chicago society. For modern day readers it’s interesting to see how something so scandalous plays out in the society of the late 1800s. In our electronic age we have “flaming” and “trolling”—largely anonymous ways to attack people, but what would it be like to walk down the street, enter a store, or go to party and have people turn away or refuse to acknowledge you? Delia experiences this and her love for Marshall costs her many of the relationships in her life.
Rosen is careful to point out that What the Lady Wants is by and large fiction, as society families of the time were fiercely private. Her research into Field’s professional life and accomplishments is accurate as are the names of the main characters and the events occurring in Chicago throughout the span of the novel but beyond the broadest strokes she is creating fiction. Fiction populated with characters and events that provide a perfect escape back to a time when shopping was an experience. And just like stepping away from everyday life and being pampered in one of those grand old stores What the Lady Wants is a delicious and extravagant take on one of the cornerstones of Chicago history.
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