Book Review for “What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age” by Renee Rosen.
One of the first jobs I ever held was as a salesperson for Marshall Field & Co., in their Evanston branch (just north of Chicago). At the time, all new employees had to undergo three days of training in their flagship State Street branch. I was no stranger to that store. I spent many happy hours wandering around its luxurious interior, looking at things I couldn’t afford to buy, and even standing outside in the cold to see their incredible Christmas window displays. Marshall Field’s was part of my history, part of the history of Chicago, and a huge chunk of the retail store industry’s history. Where I grew up, everyone knew that, respected it and it made us proud*. That’s why I knew that a historical fiction novel about this particular woman behind this particular empire-building man was exactly my kind of story.
The novel begins with the Great Chicago Fire, and how Delia meets Marshall for the first time, and from there we follow the two and their paths – both separate and together – until Marshall’s death. It is, of course, a love story, but one filled with quite a few hardships. To begin with, Marshall Field was married to Nannie Douglas Scott, and two of their children reached adulthood. Dalia Spencer was married to Arthur Caton. After the deaths of Arthur and Nannie, Marshall married Dalia – his “long-time friend,” as the papers called them, despite the rumors about an affair between them, which certainly caused a scandal in their day.
On the side of commerce, the Chicago Fire wasn’t the only disaster that befell both the city and Field’s business. These included another major fire, a financial panic that lead to a depression and the rise of the labor unions, which Field opposed. Put these two together, with a heavy dose of conjecture, and that’s just the perfect recipe for a rip-roaring historical fiction romance novel, which is exactly what Rosen gives us.
With all that information available, Rosen needed to make sure she didn’t include too much history and not enough fiction. Thankfully, Rosen shows she knows her stuff, carefully treading that fine line like a professional tightrope walker. That means that Rosen had to put the love affair at the very heart of this story, and then weave everything else around that, even at the expense of some facts going astray. As necessary as this focus is, there was one small section where I think she got a touch carried away with the romance part, which I feel could have been left out of the final version. That said, I did like her idea about how she solved the problem of Nellie Field being suspiciously absent, while Marshall, Delia and Arthur were constantly seen together hobnobbing around Chicago’s high society.
Rosen achieves all of this with a very simple prose style, which has enough touches of formal language to give us a feel for the era, without sounding archaic. Furthermore, she builds Delia’s character with precision so that we cannot help but empathize with her. This also helps us believe how both Arthur and Marshall would fall in love with her. Despite how Rosen shows Marshall’s harsher side, in his relationship with Delia he is both charming and endearing, which of course, is exactly why Nellie loved him as well. This leaves Nellie to be the prime antagonist in the story, and Rosen has her play that part with all her might.
All told, this book is simply a joy to read from beginning to end. Rosen’s style is engaging and era appropriate with elements that made this almost into a page-turner mystery novel. The only small problem was the part of the story that bordered on being too romantic for my taste, but otherwise this novel is hard to fault. Despite my already knowing many of the facts behind this story, I found some non-fictional things that I didn’t know anything about, together with some very enjoyable fictional additions. For all of this, I can warmly recommend this novel with four and a half out of five stars.
“What the Lady Wants” by Renee Rosen is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), from an IndieBound store near you as well as new or used from Alibris, or used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy).
(* This is why many Chicagoans – myself included – boycott Macy’s, because they refused to leave the name “Marshall Field & Co.” up on that the State Street building when they bought them out.)