A vicarious jaunt into Chicago of the late 1800s – and the rise of the department store

  • Book: What The Lady Wants
  • Location: Chicago
  • Author: Renée Rosen

Review Author: KimberlyinRome



I love historical fiction and have a softspot for America’s Gilded Age, so I was very pleased to discover What the Lady Wants. Not surprisingly, I loved the novel.

This is my third Renee Rosen novel, each set in a different period of time.

What the Lady Wants opens in 1871, on the eve of the Great Chicago Fire. At a ball that evening, seventeen-year-old Delia Spencer meets a successful businessman twenty years her senior, Marshall Field. Field is an ambitious dry goods store owner who seizes the opportunity to transform his establishment into a luxurious department store that attracts the Windy City’s society ladies.

After all, Fields is famous for his motto, adopted by all those working in the luxury sector over the next century and a half: “Give the lady what she wants”.

The Gilded Age in America was a time of unparalleled economic growth for some, and it ran alongside the creation of new cities such as Chicago, and the burgeoning retail, fashion and hotel industries – all covered in this novel.

The novel fictionalizes real-life events, including Delia’s marriage of convenience with wealthy socialite and man-of-leisure, Arthur Caton, and her scandalous, decades-long affair with Marshall Field.

I enjoyed getting caught up in the excitement of the brash upstart as Chicago rebuilds from the fire and works to compete with more established east coast cities, including by snagging the 1893 World’s Fair that would help place the “White City” on the global map.

It was well researched and interesting to read along on the development of a wealthy merchant class catering to the growing upper echelons of society. In an environment in which society’s opinion counted for everything within small but exclusive social circles, I also enjoyed following along to see everything Delia was willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loved.

This was a quick and enjoyable read, and I enjoyed spending time (vicariously) back in Chicago’s Gilded Age.

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