Thursday, September 17, 2009

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan's first novel tells the story of the love affair between renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, one of Wright's client (with her husband) in Oak Park, IL. Their relationship was a headline-causing scandal when, in 1909, they left their families (both were married and had children) and moved to Europe.

The story is told from Mamah's perspective, and she was an interesting woman indeed. She had an advanced degree and had had a career before marrying her husband, whom it seems clear she had "settled" for. In Europe, she met and became the translator for Swedish philosopher and feminist Ellen Key. Mamah felt that Key's ideas about marriage and love justified the actions she and Wright had taken; yet she was upset by Key's assertion that the needs of children should be put ahead of those of their mothers. She believed that her relationship with Wright was the intellectual partnership she needed to survive.

After many trials (at one point, Wright returned to his family in Illinois, leaving Mamah nearly penniless in Europe), Mamah and Wright finally began living together at Taliesin, the magnificent home in Wisconsin that Wright designed for the two of them. At Taliesin, however, she began to be more aware of some of Wright's shortcomings--perhaps most notably the fact that, while he touted his vision of democratic architecture, he was personally an elitist whose success was often built on the backs of those who worked for him (and were not paid).

I always struggle with books that take real historical figures as characters. While the outline of the story is true, the authors sometimes take liberty with what we consider facts. And the private scenes, the individual thoughts and feelings are obviously fictionalized. Yet for me, it all starts to feel equally real. An example of how the author confounds this problem is Horan's use of excerpts from actual letters written by Mamah--along with documents that look like primary sources (diary excerpts) but are not. Does it matter that I start to believe it all? At the one reader/one book level, probably not. But if, as a culture, we cannot distinguish between fiction and history, maybe so.

This book is the October selection for our Novel Conversations book group, and I think it's a great book group selection. There's so much to talk about--how to read historical fiction, the characters of Frank and Mamah, the feminist ideas about marriage that Mamah felt justified her actions, the notion of democratic architecture, and on and on.

Favorite passage:
How often had she heard him say I'd rather be honestly arrogant than hypocritically humble? It took a superior attitude not to succumb to the rewards of joining the establishment.

Unfortunately, the attitude had become his persona; he believed it himself now. He had come to mistake his gift for the whole of his character.

Of interest:

You can see photos of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park, IL (including the Cheney house) at

T.C. Boyle, who lives in a FLW house in California, published a book (The Women) about Wright and his extramarital activities shortly after Loving Frank was published. According to Colleen, a member of Novel Conversations, Boyle's book gives an even picture of FLW than the Horan book.

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