§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

This book surprised me. I liked it far more than I expected. It’s a fictionalized account of the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. It’s written in the third person with the narrative voice mostly focusing on Mamah, seeking to understand why a woman at the beginning of the 20th century would leave a wealthy and loving husband and two young children to live with a married lover. It’s most definitely not a romance novel; more a novel about a woman whose life was smaller than her spirit, who was no longer able talk to her husband about the ideas and issues that brought her alive—and who found in Frank Lloyd Wright—the architect who designed her house and whose name was not yet universally recognized—a kindred soul.

The author has talked extensively about her writing process. She became interested in Mamah after touring the Frank Lloyd Wright house and studio in Oak Park where she herself lived on East Avenue—a few blocks from the house Wright designed for Mamah and her husband. Horan researched extensively, wrote a first draft which had multiple narrators and was rejected by publishers, and then researched some more and rewrote it. She said she had to infer Mamah’s thoughts and feelings from the barebones of the story which she’d pieced together from various sources. And then she discovered the existence of letters Mamah wrote to Swedish philosopher and leader of the Woman Movement (as it was called then) in Europe, Ellen Key. Key’s work focused on freedom for woman to realize their goals, on reform of divorce laws and on child welfare. Mamah Borthwick was her translator in the US. Mamah’s letters to Key were not all business, but touched on the issues that caused Mamah to call herself a disciple. The ideas gave Horan an intellectual and emotional framework for her novel, as they had given Mamah a framework and a rationale for her life.

In 1909 Mamah asked her husband for a divorce and took her children on an extended summer vacation to visit a friend in Boulder, Colorado. She contemplated staying in Boulder, but, like most women in her position, despaired that she would not be able to support herself and the children, in spite of her college degree and work experience before marriage—especially when employers got wind of the story that she’d left her husband for another man. Frank Wright was going to Europe to see a special monograph through the press and asked Mamah to go with him. She did, leaving the children with the friend until her husband could pick them up. It was in Europe that Mamah met not only Ellen Key, but a woman artist named Elsa—people who understood her as even her closest friends and family in America did not. Frank and Mamah lived in Italy awhile. Frank returned first and began work on Taliesin, the compound he'd always envisioned for his life and work in Wisconsin. It became their home even though Frank's wife had not agreed to a divorce.

The story ends tragically—history demanded that. I did some Internet searching on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and discovered it before I finished the book. I had to put it down awhile to process what I knew was going to happen. (Usually I don’t mind “spoilers” but for some reason this one threw me for a loop.)

I’d say Horan’s achievement in this novel is considerable. The issues Mamah faced, not only legal and moral restrictions on woman, the scorn of American society and excoriation by the press, but practical issues of how to balance loving and caring for children with one’s own needs, issues of how woman are blamed for marital irregularities far more than men, from whom some straying is almost expected. I thought the character of Mamah, while idealized to a certain extent, was extremely well rendered and Wright, appropriately, left more in the background except in so far to be made a convincing partner for such a woman.


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