In this third book in The House of Closed Doors series, Nell makes her way to Chicago with Sarah and Tess in tow. Thanks to the investments Martin has made in her behalf, she is an independent woman, with finances to maintain a comfortable establishment of her own. She longs to see the palatial Rutherford’s department store and enjoy the success Martin has so admirably earned, but before she has that chance, 1870s Chicago is rocked with scandal. A grisly murder has taken place among the dresses and draperies of Rutherford’s, and the proprietor Martin Rutherford is the chief suspect for the crime.
Determined to find evidence to exonerate Martin, Nell goes undercover as a shop girl, but the long hours take their toll on her family relationships as little Sarah becomes even more disobedient and demanding and Tess begins to doubt the friendship that Nell has for her. Not the least concerning is Martin’s own aloofness–for even if he is innocent of the crime, he still feels the weight of responsibility for it, and will that responsibility drive a wedge between him and Nell forever?
Martin’s department store is every bit as grand as a palace, but like Nell and Martin’s relationship, it is a palace with a shadow on it. Can that shadow ever be erased, or must the whole building be leveled so that something new and whole can be raised from the ashes?
Amidst the high stakes of a murder investigation, this novel still manages to explore the fascinating world of couture fashion as Nell continues to pursue her dressmaking ambitions in the new vistas that Chicago opens up to her. Also intriguing are the mercantile empires developed by enterprising store owners and the cutthroat competition to corner the best share of market.
One of the themes I particularly enjoyed in this novel was the connection between love and responsibility. As she enters Chicago, Nell befriends a young but naive suffragist named Elizabeth Parnell who espouses the Free Love movement. Elizabeth argues that marriage is imprisonment and that true love should be free of restriction. Nell, in a knowledge born of experience, argues that love (and sexual relations) of necessity create restrictions. True love produces responsibility, and at the end of the day, that’s not a bad thing.
Nell, who has been seeking her independence from the beginning of the first book, has discovered at last that independence is not the end-all and be-all of life. The dependence that comes from relationship is not a yoke to be cast off but a responsibility to be shouldered, and she has found a man ready to shoulder it with her as an equal partner in the glittering new world of the American MidWest.
“I haven’t been truly independent for years,” I protested. “Since the day I decided to keep Sarah, I’ve had to take her welfare into account…. I found a sense of responsibility I’d never known I possessed.”
“Responsibility? Love, surely.” Elizabeth’s look was quizzical.
“Love, of course. But they seem to be the same thing, in many ways….”