Nowadays, we take for granted what we’ll find when we visit a department store. Sales people in each department waiting to spritz perfume, help pick clothes and even offer suggestions on matching accessories. If the shopping takes too long, major stores like Macy’s, Nordstroms, Saks and others have restaurants where shoppers can relax before returning to look at more items.
A little over 140 years ago, though, stores were not like that. It took one man, the ‘Merchant Prince’, to completely change the concept of what a store was. It is a story that is very interesting and author Renee Rosen tells a compelling version of those days and what that transition was like in her historical novel, What the Lady Wants. Ms. Rosen, who previously wrote about gangsters in the early 1900’s in Dollface, turns to real characters this time, building her story around entrepeneur Marshall Field, the woman he wanted but could not have, Delia Caton, plus Delia’s husband Arthur and a host of friends who were the Who’s Who of Chicago in the late 1800’s; the Swifts, the Armours, the Pullmans and many of the other merchants and industrialists that took Chicago from a backwater town almost destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871 to the showcase of the world and the future in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition.
Building the story around Marshall Field and Delia Caton was a stroke of genius for Ms. Rosen. In Marshall Field, you have the perfect character for this genre, a man whose history and accomplishments are extremely well documented, but whose life, as well as that of the rest of his family and that of the Catons, was kept very quiet. This allows Ms. Rosen to flesh out the characters extremely well, to add dramatic elements, even speculation and enables the reader to develop an attachment to the main characters. In Delia Spencer Caton, especially, identifying with the sadness in what should be a charmed life makes her all too real.
Delia herself is torn between two worlds; the upper-class socialite but also someone who is developing empathy for the working class as opposed to most of her peers. Here again, Renee rosen imbues Delia with great personal growth, even as she remains firmly committed to maintaining her lifestyle and position. Her family is everything to her and the chronicles of what it takes to help each of her family members, as well as others that she takes on as family, make Delia a character who can both be respected and loved.
What the Lady Wants is more than just a historical book, though. The pacing keeps moving and the horrors of events such as the Great Chicago Fire are woven into the narrative in such a way that the time passage in the novel moves smoothly. With a balance of action, tender moments, sex and several major historical landmarks in not only Chicago but resonating through the world, Renee Rosen has crafted a novel that is hard to put down, bringing the history of Chicago to life. She is indeed on a good track with the finest of the historical novels and it will be interesting to see where Ms. Rosen turns her literary eye to next.
What the Lady Wants
New American Library; from Penguin/Random House
Publication Date November 4th, 2014