Growing up on Chicago's exclusive Prairie Avenue during the planning of the 1893 World's Fair has given Lucy Banning opportunities that young women of less means could only dream of. But her life is also something of a gilded cage. Raised with the expectation that she will marry Daniel Jules, a rising young star in the banking world (and the son of the Bannings' dearest friends), Lucy, while fond of Daniel, knows his ideas for her do not mesh with the sort of life she desires.
To avoid the wrath of both families, she procrastinates through her engagement and manages to avoid setting a wedding date. Lucy knows that marrying Daniel will mean she will be forced to give up her volunteer work with a local orphanage as well as the longed-for college degree she has only just begun working toward in secret. Daniel sees no need for a woman of means to receive a university education. And as for her charity work: When will she have time for the little wretches amidst the greater social obligations of being Mrs. Daniel Jules?
And then Lucy meets Will Edwards, a fresh transplant to Chicago and friend to her brother, Leo. Immediately drawn to the talented young architect with the cobalt blue eyes, Lucy begins to dream of escaping the Banning and Jules cages for good. And the better she gets to know Will, whose humble roots are not likely to win the favor of her society parents, the more determined she is to follow her heart.
Meanwhile, Lucy secretly befriends Charlotte, the newly hired maid (who has a few secrets of her own). As their friendship grows, so does the danger of discovery for both of them. But Lucy is willing to risk all to stand for what she believes in … she just doesn't comprehend how very dangerous that risk could become.
Hits & misses:
It's fairly clear from the beginning that Lucy "likes" Daniel -- but also that her "liking" has no romantic feeling attached to it. The introduction of attractive, humble and forward-thinking Will Edwards, coming only six pages into the tale, further cements the realization that Lucy's fiancé is probably not going to be a happy camper much longer.
And therein lies my only complaint with the story. As Daniel moves, rather swiftly, from distracted-but-courteous fiancé into the role of the "villain," the point-of-view shift was a bit jarring. A little more foreshadowing into Daniel's emotional issues would have served the story well; and, although there was a late-placed hint that "all wasn't right" before Lucy broke the engagement, I wasn't entirely convinced that it was strong enough to support his rapid decline after. I will say, however, that I found it refreshing, if not entirely believable, to see the compassion with which the author and her characters handled the issue of mental illness – especially considering the times.
Newport has a way with dialogue that really allows the reader to "see" the person speaking. That magic sparks them to life, giving credence and believability even to those few spots of plotting that might otherwise put the brakes on the reader's suspension of disbelief. One character that really stood out, especially considering how little page time he had, was Lucy's brother, Leo. Leo's few lines were filled with energy and personality, yet not so much that he stole the spotlight from the stars of the show. I really liked Leo and … I have a sneaking suspicion he might warrant his own story someday.
When I first received the book I thought the title was very old-fashioned. But after reading the novel I simply adore that its title has a double – no,triple – meaning. The Pursuit of Lucy Banning really captures the essence of the whole story. Lucy Banning is pursuing the desires of her heart (charity, education, love) – while being pursued by those who desire her: one man out of love and one for more selfish reasons. It's a fun play on words, and the author certainly deserves a wink and some kudos for that one!
To read … or not?
With attention to historical detail and an artful sense of place, Olivia Newport gives readers a fascinating glimpse into the way the wealthy interpreted the 1893 World's Fair – and the roles of women in the world. The Pursuit of Lucy Banning is a compassionate coming-of-age romance with a spunky, determined heroine and a Happy Ever After that's satisfyingly sweet.
(This review originally appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)