Nancy Horan’s impressive first novel, LOVING FRANK, recreates the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her shocking love affair with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The two met while living in Oak Park, Illinois, and both were married with children. After consulting on a house for her and her husband, Mamah began an affair with Frank that culminated with the pair eloping in Germany to escape the prying eyes of the judgmental press and the decimated families they left behind.
Once in Europe, Frank sets to work on several architectural projects, and Mamah, a modest feminist in her time, begins translating the works of popular European suffragist Ellen Key. Mamah thinks that Key is speaking directly to her, especially when Key talks about marriage, family and the struggle to feel complete as a person. Mamah feels horrible about abandoning her children yet at the same time realizes that she was dying a slow but no less painful death in an unhappy marriage. She desperately wants to work and believes that this --- much more than motherhood --- completes her, although she has never stopped thinking about her children and whether or not they would ever understand her plight.
Of that time back in Oak Park, Mamah writes in her journal: “I’ve been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.” She throws caution to the wind and dives into life with Frank, which has its share of ebbs and flows. She learns that her beloved can be boastful, prickly and not very forthright about money, but still she is committed to forging a life with him. Soon after arriving in Germany, the American press tracks them down and the couple must flee to another town.
When the pair returns from Europe, they look to Wisconsin to give them the wide open spaces necessary to build Frank’s latest creation, Taliesin, a home like no other. Once there, both Frank and Mamah take greater steps in rekindling relationships with their children, which proves to be more difficult than anticipated. She cannot make up for her years abroad but tries to find some middle ground with her son and daughter. As she attempts to reconcile her relationship with the moody architect and her neglected kids, Mamah and her family are struck by a violent and incomprehensible tragedy.
More than just a retelling of their ill-fated romance, LOVING FRANK delves into Mamah’s life and personality, turning her into a fully fleshed-out character. She is not a long-suffering wife nor a pitiful object of scorn. Rather, she is trying to figure out what centuries of women before her and since have been trying to determine: how to reconcile one’s private self with one’s role as mother and wife. Her struggles are still relatable to this day, which is exactly what Leslie Bennetts’s recent book, THE FEMININE MISTAKE: Are We Giving Up Too Much? addresses.
Frank is an incredibly talented and somewhat smug character, with his own particular way of doing things. He feels that “laws and rules are made for the average man” and clearly acknowledges that it’s his genius “…that causes people to make allowances.” Mamah is both in awe of his talent and amazed in his confidence, finding both comfort and inspiration in his bravado.
LOVING FRANK is told in the third person, mostly from Mamah’s perspective. By choosing to focus on her thoughts and feelings, Horan is able to illuminate a certain time and place, not only for an unmarried couple, but for a woman of that time as well. Mamah has tried to balance her life as a wife and mother, and also as an individual. Through her relationship with Frank, she thinks she has finally discovered a way to do just that --- but at what price? When their perfectly constructed lives are violently shattered, one wonders if that is the price for living unfettered, or were they merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Horan’s meticulous descriptions reveal that this relationship was not a mere sexual dalliance, but rather a bond cultivated over years of friendship and mutual respect. It was the fact that Frank appealed to Mamah’s intellect rather than her passion that she found so intoxicating. We see their relationship being built over time and then becoming an inevitable force all its own. Yes, they both made a conscious choice to leave their families behind, but Horan is careful to demonstrate that this was done with much reflection (and guilt) on Mamah’s part.
We may not agree with their actions, but we certainly can see Mamah’s predicament and empathize with the characters rather than judge them too harshly. Many years into the relationship, Mamah realizes that she and Frank’s first wife, Catherine, shared a painful reality: “The price both of them had paid for loving Frank was dear indeed.”
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 7, 2011