What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded AgeWhat the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen
Published by NAL

From the publisher:

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.

I was expecting this to be a light read, honestly just based on the cover alone (is that terrible?). I enjoy a light read as much as the next person, but I was pleasantly surprised to find more depth and history to the novel than I was expecting.

The main reason I chose to read this book is that, as a Chicagoan, I’m always interested in history revolving around the city that I call home (but no longer live in). In that regard, What the Lady Wants certainly did not disappoint. The book starts with a bang, literally, as the opening scene is Delia navigating the streets of Chicago as the Great Fire is raging all around her. This scene set the stage for the entire book for me – it was so intense and captivating, I couldn’t wait to get to the rest of the novel. And the book continued to be rich with Chicago history – Marshall Fields has always been so iconic in the city, and reading about the history of Marshall Field himself and how he turned a general store into this empire of a shopping experience was so fun and also interesting. I remember going to the huge Marshall Fields in the city as a kid – all those floors and departments and beautiful things – it was truly an experience. I just loved reading about all these historical elements of the city I love so much.

Also, and this was really a subplot, but the author gets a bit into the history of unions being formed and workers’ rights and, while it’s told from the point of view of the rich business owner and not the workers demanding rights, it was interesting to see how that played out. It annoyed me a lot how Delia couldn’t even begin to open her mind to how these working class people might be feeling, this woman who hadn’t worked a day in her life judging hard-working people for wanting an eight-hour work day, but I do think it was true to history and that reaction from Delia is probably exactly how the rich felt about working people (and I would argue, still is to this day).

I was less in love with the romance between Delia and Marshall, although I did like Delia as a character a lot. For me, their love story took a sort of backseat to the historical details and the rest of the plot of the novel. It was certainly interesting, as they were both married to people they did not love, were drawn to each other with that spark of instalove, and their romance spanned decades, but for me the history was so much richer than the love story.

Overall I quite enjoyed this historical fiction look at an element of history that is very close to my heart. I love Chicago so my bias might be showing, but I just loved reading about all this Chicago history. While the characters and the romance were less exciting for me, I still raced through the book and had a hard time putting it down. Recommended!