Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: Loving Frank, by Nancy Hoban

Loving Frank, by Nancy Hoban
(library book, chosen by me)

It's kind of ironic that I'm watching a house being built right outside my window as I'm thinking about this book detailing the love affair between famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

The street outside my dining room window has had cement mixers churning, cranes straining their necks high into the sky, and construction workers laying the foundation for a new home.

This whole scene seems kind of poignant when thinking about Loving Frank. The homes he built. The homes ruined because of his illicit, scandalous affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

I knew very little about Frank Lloyd Wright before reading this book, other than his accomplishments as an architect. I'd also never heard of Mamah Borthwick Cheney (pronounced MAY-mah) nor of their relationship, the subject of Loving Frank.

From the book jacket (as found on

I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.

So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.

During the reading of this book (or listening, as I did on audio), it's important to keep in mind that this takes place in the early 1900s. In those times, it was taboo for a mother to abandon her children for a lover. (Not to say that such actions are condoned nowadays ... just that it was a different time).

But abandoning John and Martha, her very young children, is exactly what Mamah does. She breaks the news to them while the three are enjoying a Colorado vacation together, a trip purposefully taken without Mamah's husband Edwin, the children's father.

"Mamah spoke slowly. 'Now, listen carefully. I'm going to leave tomorrow to go on a trip to Europe. You will stay here with the Browns until Papa arrives in a couple of days. I'm going on a small vacation.'

"John burst into tears. 'I thought we were on one.'

"Mamah's heart sank. 'One just for me,' she said, struggling to stay calm. . . .

Mamah lay down on the bed and pulled their small curled bodies toward her, listening as John's weeping gave way to a soft snore."

Indeed, Mamah leaves her children, her husband fetching them within a few days, and sails overseas to begin a new life with Frank Lloyd Wright.

She is gone for more than a year (maybe longer, I can't quite recall.)

I had some difficulty with this part of the book, complicated by the knowledge that this really happened while truly understanding Mamah's sense of confinement, of wanting more out of life than the times she lived in could offer her, of needing to pursue her intellectual curiosities and to love the greatest love of her life. And I'm glad that she had the opportunity to do so, especially given that she died young. (Coincidentally, this past weekend marked the 95th anniversary of Mamah's death, on August 15, 1914. That's all I'm going to say about that.)

While overseas with Frank, Mamah pursues all of these ambitions and strikes up a friendship with the Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key. According to Wikipedia, Key wrote "on many subjects in the fields of family life, ethics and education .... [S]he was an early advocate of a child-centered approach, and a suffragist. Key maintained that motherhood is so crucial to society that the government, rather than their husbands, should support mothers and their children. These ideas regarding state child support influenced social legislation in several countries."

(Here's a review of an Ellen Key book from the July 13, 1913 edition of the New York Times, during the very same time period that Loving Frank captures! Pretty cool, huh?)

Mamah was so taken by Ellen and her ideas that she became her American translator, and thus was the person responsible for making Ellen's work available in the United States. By all accounts, it seems as if Mamah - in love with Frank and pursuing her intellectual interests - has the rich life she desired.

Frank came across in the book to me as an entirely unlikeable character, incredibly emotionally abusive, unfair to his employees, and just downright unpleasant to be around. (You kind of want to shake Mamah, girlfriend-to-girlfriend, and ask her what the hell she sees in him, beyond his world-famous reputation.)

Still, I keep coming back to the fact of Mamah leaving her children and I was wishing she'd lived in a time that would have allowed her to fulfill her interests as well as be there for her kids. The kids are mentioned throughout the book, so the reader doesn't have the opportunity to forget them, but towards the end, Mamah's "woe-is-me" attitude about not seeing her kids and missing them struck me as self-indulgent, disingenuous, and undeserving of sympathy.

Loving Frank is categorized as a novel, but make no mistake: author Nancy Horan has done impeccable (in my opinion) research, and done it incredibly well. Again from the book jacket:

In this ambitious debut novel, fact and fiction blend together brilliantly. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney’s profound influence on Wright. Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual.

I agree completely with the last sentence and as sad as parts of this book are, I did find it compelling and at times I was transfixed. I listened to it on audio and would highly recommend this version, as Joyce Bean's narration was excellent.

One last thing. The conclusion of the book is truly stunning. Do not read anything (like on Wikipedia) about the lives of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, because you'll likely learn the spoiler that gave away the entire ending for me.

I'm giving this 4 out of 5 stars. Nancy Horan has penned a very well-written story, with many historical details, of two compelling yet in so many ways tragic characters. The research is extensive and she captures the time and the feel of the turn of the century incredibly well.

What Other Bloggers Say:
A Novel Menagerie

Books on the Brain

The Boston Bibliophile (who also wisely cautions not to read the Wikipedia entries about Frank and Mamah unless you like spoilers.)

The Literate Housewife

I know there must be others I've missed, so if you'd like to be added to the link, let me know in the comments.


Stephanie said...

Hi Melissa,
Ok, now you have my interest. Another book to read when I am finished writing my own...these days, it feels hard to read and write and the same time! Some days writing and breathing are a challenge.
On a serious note, sounds like a great read/listen. Thanks for sharing it.
Steph :-)

JoAnn said...

Great review, Melissa! I've been curious about this book, but have never read any reviews. It was brought up as a possible selection at my last book club meeting, too. I'm going to sample it at audible.
T.C. Boyle's new book, The Woman, is also about Frank Lloyd Wright. Haven't read it, but have been reading his stories lately.