Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
2007 Ballantine Books
Finished on 9/20/10
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.
So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.
In this ambitious debut novel, fact and fiction blend together brilliantly. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney’s profound influence on Wright.
Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Horan’s Mamah is a woman seeking to find her own place, her own creative calling in the world. Mamah’s is an unforgettable journey marked by choices that reshape her notions of love and responsibility, leading inexorably ultimately lead to this novel’s stunning conclusion.
Elegantly written and remarkably rich in detail, Loving Frank is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman, a national icon, and their timeless love story.
Hmmm, I not so sure about using the word courageous to describe Mamah in the above blurb. We're talking about a woman who basically abandoned her two young children for her lover. And that act was the hot topic of discussion at my book club two weeks ago. How could a mother behave so selfishly? Yes, we understood her unhappiness in her marriage and yes, we understood the difficulty of obtaining a divorce, but we could not understand how she could move to Europe, leaving her children behind to live with her estranged husband, burdening her sister to care for them when they so desperately missed her. Was she courageous to seek her own happiness over that of two small children? The consensus of our group was that it was a purely selfish act that none of us could fathom.
That said, we loved the book. Horan draws the reader in from the opening paragraphs and, other than a brief lull in the middle of the narrative, maintains the pace with believable dialogue and tension, causing this reader to quickly finish the final chapters with just a few hours to spare before the women arrived for book club.
Prior to reading Loving Frank, I knew nothing about Wright, other than having a general familiarity with a few of his architectural works. And I certainly knew nothing about Mamah Borthwick Cheney until the release of Horan's novel. So, the historical details of their affair and life together at Taliesin were quite revealing.
On her walk home, the snow stopped. She paused on the sidewalk to look at her house. Tiny iridescent squares in the stained-glass windows glinted back the late-afternoon sun. She remembered standing in this very spot three years ago, during an open house she and Ed had given after they'd moved in. Women had been sitting along the terrace wall, gazing out toward the street, calling out to their children, their faces lit like a row of moons. It had struck Mamah then that her low-slung house looked as small as a raft beside the steamerlike Victorian next door. But what a spectacular raft, with the "Maple Leaf Rag" drifting out of its front doors, and people draped along its edges.
Edwin had noticed her standing on the sidewalk and come to put his arm around her. "We got ourselves a good times house, didn't we?" he'd said. His face was beaming that day, so full of pride and the excitement of a new beginning. For Mamah, though, the housewarming had felt like the end of something extraordinary.
On Marriage and Motherhood:
For as long as Mamah could remember, she had felt a longing inside her for something she could not name. She had shoveled everything into that empty place—books, club committees, suffrage work, classes—but nothing filled it.
In college, and for a good period afterward in Port Huron, she'd had big ambitions. She had wanted to be a writer of substance, or maybe a translator of great works. But the years passed. She was nearing thirty when Edwin finally won her over. By the time she married him, she'd put those dreams to rest.
Back in Oak Park, living as a wife, she had done what all the women did: had children. She had truly wanted children—that was the main reason she'd married Ed. But there was a nanny now, and she had reverted to her old habit of retreating into herself, holing up to read and study. When she came out for a burst of socializing, everyone seemed pleased to see her. "Strong-minded" was a word she heard from time to time about herself. It meant brainy. But she heard "lovely," too.
She took her time translating Love and Ethics. She toyed with phrases, consulted her dictionary, framed and reframed sentences. She wanted to honor the work by getting it right. And when she did, when she poured the German translation of Ellen's wisdom through the filter of her own soul, when it distilled into elegant, persuasive English sentences right there on the paper, something very much like ecstasy came over her.
(top three photos from www.savewright.org)On Taliesin:
Taliesin had come a long way since Mamah had arrived that first August day. There were windows in—large clear panes, with no stained glass because there was no need to block out the views. There was plaster on the walls. Rough-cut oak beams thrust out from interior walls of stacked limestone.
How different from the house on East Avenue, she thought. In Oak Park, the kind of building Frank had put up, despite being called a "prairie house," turned inward toward the hearth and family life and turned its back on the street, because there was no real prairie beyond the door, only other houses.
Here, Taliesin opened its arms to what was outside—the sun and sky and green hills and black earth. Far more than the house on East Avenue, this house promised good times. It was truly for her, with its terraces and courtyard and gardens so like the Italian villas she had loved. Yet it wasn't an Italian villa. It had elements of the prairie house but it was not one. Taliesin was original, unlike anything else she had ever been in—a truly organic house that was of the hill.
Final thoughts: A sure winner for any book club seeking a thought-provoking, albeit scandalous topic. A word of caution, though. Don't Google "Mamah Borthwick Cheney" if you don't want to spoil the conclusion of this novel. I'm glad I went into it completely unaware of the final outcome for this famous couple. Now to read T.C. Boyle's The Women!
Go here to listen to Nancy Horan discuss the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.