#BookReview: What the Lady Wants by Renée Rosen

Reviewer: Kate

what the lady wantsI received a copy of What the Lady Wants by Renée Rosen in exchange for an honest review.


In late-nineteenth-century Chicago, visionary retail tycoon Marshall Field made his fortune wooing women customers with his famous motto: “Give the lady what she wants.” His legendary charm also won the heart of socialite Delia Spencer and led to an infamous love affair.

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 don’t know if What the Lady Wants gave this lady what she wanted. It seems a theme that the blurbs on the backs of Renée Rosen’s books don’t quite capture the essence of her stories. This leaves some readers disappointed. This reader included. But I suppose I can’t blame Rosen for poor marketing content—author’s rarely write that. So then I have to pretend I didn’t see the cover and go right into the meat of the story.

In 400 pages, Rosen whips through about 40 years of history, interweaving fictional plausibility with factual events to recreate Chicago in the Gilded Age for us. But as much as Rosen’s characters talk about how Chicago changes from the mid1800s through the early 1900s, we readers really don’t get to “see” it very clearly. I suppose if you are a Chicagoan this all might make perfect sense, but as a New Yorker, I still haven’t a clue exactly how much that White City expanded and changed, other than population statistics. So while I understand that Chicago grew from a backwater railroad stop to a metropolis in its own right, I’m struck less by the marvels of progress and more by the whiny, self absorbed, shallow, materialistic, egotism of Chicago’s elite, starting with main characters Marshall Field and Delia Spencer.

There is no triumph in this book. Rather the highlights here are human frailty, failings and flaws, set in the glitz and glam of the ultra rich and self-made tycoon. If Rosen’s point was to craft a book that would reassure the not-so-rich that they can stop envying the rich—got it! I would never admire or wish to be any of these pathetic creatures. So Rosen indeed succeeds in humanizing her real-life subjects, making them less legend and more next door neighbor (even if they do have more money than God). But I just can’t like any of the characters that populate this story. And because of that, I can’t like the story. (I personally don’t read to get to know despicable people—I can do that by just walking outside my door.) I’m left deflated and unsatisfied by this read.

But—if you like complicated relationships and complex people, have an eye for fashion and décor, and have always wondered what it’s like to live like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and all the other robber barons—this just might be the story for you.

For my taste, this is a 3-star book, but I can’t deny that Rosen is an expert storyteller who interweaves the stories of a dozen characters seamlessly. So for technical ability, I have to give this book:

Rating: 4 Stars


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