My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
An ambitious blend of fact and fiction, Loving Frank tells the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, her love for Frank Lloyd Wright (the Frank of the title), and the consequences of that love.
Mamah (prounced May-mah) is articulate, multilingual, highly intelligent, financially secure and an imposing beauty to boot, she has it all: a loving husband, two happy children, a supportive sister, staff and a beautiful home. What woman in the early 1900s wouldn’t be happy with all this? But attitudes are starting to change, and Mamah is no exception. Surely there is more to life than this “domestic bliss,” being “the angel in the house,” providing a feminine hand to soothe her troubled man’s brow? Mamah’s desire for self-expression and her quest for individualism and for meaning in her life, leads her to question her choices and leads her to Frank L. Wright, another rebel. He becomes the catalyst for Mamah’s awakening, opening her eyes to new possibilities, new ideas and new concepts. And their resulting love affair transforms their lives and those closest to them.
But don’t think that Mamah is just “the other woman” in this fascinating novel. Mamah is not just Frank’s lover, she is his muse and inspiration, influencing him at a key time in his development as an architect and designer. Not only that but once she is free of her family commitments, Mamah develops her skills as a writer and translator, working in conjunction with famous feminist Ellen Key to introduce Key’s revolutionary teachings to American women. However, as the relationship with Wright progresses, Mamah starts to realize that her lover and hero has clay feet and that his single-mindedness is creating problems with his staff, his clients and his family. Not only that but realizes that maybe her dreams and goals will have to come second place to Wright’s work, since his genius is so great. Can Mamah be satisfied with being a runner up in his affections? And can she really be happy without her children who have remained with her husband, Edwin?
The insertion of newspaper articles, telegrams, letters and journal entries into this first novel by Nancy Horan reminds the reader that this story is based on fact (hint, don’t google Mamah’s story, or Frank’s, before reading this novel, you really don’t want to find out the ending before reading the book!) but these do not distract from the story. If anything, these additions make the couple’s story more immediate to the reader and increases sympathy and empathy for the situation they find themselves in. It is hard to believe the impact that their love affair has on Chicago (and the rest of American society); they are both ostracized, Wright loses several lucrative commissions but only Mamah is vilified as being “unnatural” – a woman prepared to put her lover before her children. Mamah is a woman forced by her husband to choose between her rights as an individual, her dreams, and her children. Whether one can agree with her resulting decision or not, Mamah’s journey of self-enlightenment is beautifully drawn and the agonies that her decision causes her are heart-wrenchingly described.
Although Frank headlines the title of this novel, this is Mamah’s story, and one worth reading through to its stunning and shocking conclusion.
Nancy Horan is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Loving Frank is her first novel. She lived most of her life in Oak Park, IL, until her recent move to an island in Puget Sound.