Nancy Horan

"Loving Frank"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew APR 23, 2008)

"Her soul has entered me and it shall not be lost."

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, wrote those words about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the woman for whom he'd left his wife, Catherine. From 1907 through 1914, their affair, highly publicized at times, flourished. As Wright wrote in the same letter to THE WEEKLY HOME NEWS newspaper on August 20, 1914, "Mamah and I have had our struggles, our differences, our moments of jealous fear for our ideals of each other -- they are not lacking in any close human relationship -- but they served only to bind us more closely together. We were more than merely happy even when momentarily miserable...."

Loving Frank is a fictionalized exploration of Mamah (pronounced May-muh, and a nickname given to little girl Martha Borthwick by her grandmother) and Frank's life together, told almost exclusively from Mamah's perspective, although via third person. As author Nancy Horan notes, piecing together a picture of Mamah required a great deal of research. Precious few pieces of her writing could be uncovered. No extant Mamah/Frank correspondence has come to light. And nothing else she might have authored is known to posterity aside from ten letters she wrote to Swedish feminist author Ellen Key and the published translations Mamah completed. Wright's autobiography includes but doesn't dwell on her. However, some other historical literature provided guidelines, and Horan strove for as authentic a depiction of both the lives and the time. By all indications, Horan has succeeded.

Chapter 1 begins with Mamah rushing through slushy streets in a Chicago suburb to see Frank give a public talk, and it soon is evident that the reader is not witnessing the beginning of their relationship, but has been dropped into an ongoing intrigue of illicit love. Although the Mamah character has already set the scene by explaining that she and her husband, Edwin Cheney, hired Wright to build their Oak Park, Illinois home in 1903, this reader regrets that the story didn't begin in that year. Observing Mamah and Frank as they tended to the details of the construction and cemented their feelings would have been fascinating. However, one understands that Horan's book intentionally begins in the year Frank and Mamah start struggling with their desire to leave their respective spouses.

The novel feels somewhat aloof, especially in the beginning. That's not necessarily a criticism because both Mamah and Frank seemed to go though life with a certain distance, a certain craving for ideals and intellectualism rather than the day-to-day mundanity of life lived with husband or wife and children. The prose companions the characters. Mamah, her sister tells her irritably at one point, always wanted to do something great. And, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright obsessed to convert his unique, spacious, organic designs into buildings. The two bond because they share a high-minded vision of how life should be lived.

Frank and Mamah rendezvous in Europe after Mamah -- who several months before left Edwin and took her two young children, John and Martha, to Colorado -- asks Edwin to come collect the children and hurries abroad alone before he arrives. In Germany and Italy, Mamah and Frank endeavor to stay one step ahead of dogging reporters who plaster their scandalous affair across Chicago newspapers. Even in Europe, they don't always succeed in avoiding embarrassment and gossip.

While on The Continent, Mamah meets Ellen Key. Mamah becomes a disciple of Key's, and begs the older feminist to authorize Mamah, whose linguistic talents included three languages by the time she was ready for kindergarten, to be the sole American translator for Key books published in the United States. Ellen tells Mamah if she masters Swedish and translates a few items, she will so authorize. So, while Frank returns to Chicago to see his children and attempt to persuade Catherine to grant him a divorce, Mamah stays in Europe to learn Swedish. Her subsequent relationship with Key is complex and leads Mamah to reconsider her initial near idolic perception of the older woman.

In 1911, Frank persuades Mamah to come to Wisconsin where his people have roots. He wants to build her a grand Frank Lloyd Wright home there. With some reservations, she consents. She finally sees her children again, but since she "abandoned" her husband and them, Edwin can dictate her visitation rights. The Cheneys are finally divorced though. Frank's wife, however, still refuses to let him go.

The house Frank builds is named Taliesin. It is an undertaking for which he really doesn't have cash. In fact, Mamah slowly realizes that Frank Lloyd Wright owes a lot of people money. She confronts him angrily for lying about finances, for cheating workers, for buying luxuries he can't afford. She even leaves him, insisting she won't return to their home unless he changes. He tries to explain that he buys extravagances because he has to be surrounded by beautiful things so he can create. But he also admits that he has acted wrongly, and so they again, more gingerly, more cautiously, take up their life together.

In August of 1914, the winds of European war beginning to blow, but at Taliesin, the Mamah/Frank era comes to a close through a more immediate force of shocking destruction. If a reader is unfamiliar with this biographical fact of Frank Lloyd Wright's life, the conclusion of Loving Frank will surely be a mighty blow. Even those who already know what happened will be shaken.

Mamah and Frank aren't sugar-coated in Loving Frank. Theirs isn't an idyllic love story -- as Wright conceded in the letter quoted above. Horan reaches into the straight-and-narrow mores of the early American twentieth century, and reminds the reader that seeking an independent life, going against the norms, living for "higher purposes" exacted a price. Mamah and Frank both suffered because their decision to be together separated them from their children. And ironically, Horan's Mamah, who had hoped to do "something big," reflects late in the novel, "But what had she done with all that ambition? Attached herself to two colossal personalities. Spent herself on Frank Lloyd Wright and Ellen Key, who would have done great work without ever having known her. Poured her soul into defending the sanctity of the individual while John and Martha slid from her grasp." The reader may well agree with that assessment. And one wonders whether the real Mamah, clearly a committed feminist, but also a mother, would have reached the same conclusion.

Loving Frank is a convincing presentation of what the Mamah/Frank life together might have been like. It gains strength and solidity as it progresses. At times, one is overcome with a nearly unbearable poignancy. These characters bring so much heartache to so many including themselves, but, as they say, to do otherwise would not have been honest, and Mamah and Frank, in their own ways, believed being true to one's real nature was the highest calling of each person. Interestingly, Catherine Wright and Edwin Cheney, just normal Americans who plodded along their dutiful paths, might deserve to be "heard" too as Mamah and Frank were in this book. The spouses, who had to endure the scandal in Chicago, and who had to suffer through their own winters of the soul, tug on the reader's sensibilities and arouse curiosity as to their feelings and convictions. At the end, Edwin is necessarily portrayed, but rather remotely, through Frank's eyes. Had Edwin been opened to the reader, what a devastating soliloquy he could have delivered. One's whole heart goes out to him.

But again and rightly, the locus of Loving Frank is Mamah and Frank, not their spouses, children, extended family, friends, or colleagues and employees. The precise, crafted language; the elegant and evocative word pictures Horan paints; the way the searingly uncompromising situations are laid out; and the complexity of Mamah and Frank are exquisite literary gifts. Loving Frank will likely be pondered long after the book is closed.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 86 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Loving Frank at author's website



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About the Author:

Nancy HoranNancy 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, Iliinois, until her recent move to an island in Puget Sound.

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