Brought to you by OBS reviewer Daniele
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, (Goodreads)
Delia is seventeen years old when she meets Marshall Field, then thirty-seven, at a ball the night of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and they are intensely attracted to each other. However, they maintain merely an acquaintance while the town rebuilds after the fire. He is married with two children and she soon marries her childhood friend Arthur. Both couples’ relationships are rocky: Marsh and Nannie deal with her illnesses, laudanum addiction, and jealousies while Delia and Arthur fumble through almost platonically and deal with his inclination to over imbibe. Delia eventually realizes that Arthur is homosexual, and Delia and Marsh turn to each other for comfort. Thus begins a thirty-plus year affair between the two friends and neighbors. It is an unconventional relationship to say the least, but they do not hide it from their spouses or society, and Delia is ostracized as a result. The novel follows them through several decades full of tragedies, rebuilding, loss, and triumph.
Rosen does an excellent job with attention to detail to the time period. I could smell the smoke in the air during the Great Fire and was dazzled by the descriptions of what would become Field’s first department store. This is a highly fictionalized telling of the characters’ lives and the circumstances surrounding their affair. The author explains in her notes that, though the affair was common knowledge, not much about their lives otherwise was recorded. Real and imaginary characters are scattered throughout, and I am now curious what their lives were really like.
The characters are wonderfully flawed. Though the affair is morally wrong, one cannot help but sympathize with Delia and Marshall. Delia is a strong, intelligent woman but remains true to the confines of women during the late nineteenth century. Marsh is painted as a man who is aware of his failings. Nannie is deliciously villainous and an easy scapegoat for the affair. Arthur is a tortured soul attempting to fit into society’s mold of what a man should be. These are characters with complicated relationships, and the reader is drawn into their struggles, triumphs, and losses. It reads rather larger than life but plausible at the same time. The city of Chicago is a character in its own right.
This is ultimately a story of perseverance and change, both for the characters and the city, and it is an enjoyable ride though a little heartbreaking. I recommend this to lovers of Chicago and historical fiction.