"Her husband had archaic ideas about jewels; a man bought them for his wife in acknowledgement of things he could not gracefully utter."
One thing that seems to be fairly universal in Willa Cather's writing is that her strengths lie in transporting you to a certain time and place. I am of the opinion that one major reason she is easily able to do this is because she has a gift for drawing vivid, realistic characters that fully inhabit their locale.
In A Lost Lady, as in her previous stories, we meet a character that uniquely represents the emerging American West. Cather again looks at how the frontier came of age, (which—as a side note—Fannie Flagg also does beautifully in Standing in the Rainbow regarding the 1950s,) showing the contrast between gaining modern conveniences and the loss of innocence.
Marian Forrester hails from California, which shines as an exotic and mysterious detail of her past against the backdrop of the sedate railroad town of Sweet Water that she has come to live in with her well-off husband. I didn't sympathize much with any of the characters, though I'm not convinced the reader is meant to. It was apparent to me that much of Cather's personal experience (not fitting into the small town ideal) was wrapped up in this story. Certainly it is sad to see how easily Marian was looked down upon for needing more than Sweet Water had to offer, not to mention the disdain and disappointment when she decided to follow her dream after her duty was done.
By no means Cather's best, (my vote still goes to O Pioneers!) A Lost Lady still provides a deceptively simple look into human nature and the contrast of change.
(Next up on my journey to read Willa Cather's works chronologically is The Professor's House, which I've heard many good things about. Look for that in 2013!)