Loving Frank by Nancy Horan is an elegantly written piece of historical fiction skillfully evoking the American version of la Belle Epoch shortly before the whole world went to hell in 1914. This is something I admire about this book, that is, the way it strolls through this era at ease without the foreboding of what was to come. It was a period of optimism when women were beginning to demand equal rights and when the visual arts were taking their inspiration from Modernism and when the suburb of Oak Park just outside of Chicago was the epitome of middleclass heaven.
The story revolves around Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a well-educated middle class woman who married Edwin Cheney a sensible, totally unpretentious engineer- businessman type who provided his family with a very comfortable lifestyle according to the conventions of the times. Mamah had the help of a housekeeper and her sister and later a nanny to raise her family. She was also fortunate in that Edwin was an adoring, if somewhat dull, husband who admired her for her beauty as well as her intellectual gifts and encouraged her to pursue her own interests. From the outside this would have looked like a perfect marriage and for a long time it may have been. Then the break-up begins slowly and innocently. Edwin, tired of their dark cluttered Victorian home invited the architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new home for them in the style of a Prairie House. The attraction of a Prairie House being that it is open and more airy than the Victorian/Edwardian style of the day, with beautiful windows and lots of well organized storage space. Thrown together as the design and construction of the house progressed, Mamah and Frank eventually became lovers with disastrous results when they run away together to Europe leaving behind small children and distraught spouses and worse, a scandalized public. Such a story involving infidelity was considered worthy of being published in the front pages of the news at that time. The story goes on to chart the course of their romance and tries to explain how any passion could be so strong as to lead to so much destruction in their wake among those they loved.
Nancy Horan’s writing style is a pure pleasure to read but I was not convinced by her characterization of Mamah, (Mamah, by the way, is a pet name for Martha). The reader is supposed to feel empathy for her as a woman who wanted not only to follow the great passion of her life but wished to fulfill a burning need to make a significant intellectual or artistic contribution of some sort to the world. Moreover she was a fervent adherent of the women’s movement both with respect to suffrage and a woman’s right to seek a place in society outside the family. So who did she run away with…? Frank Lloyd Wright who (as the author portrayed him) turned out to be an ass despite his charming manners and good looks. Frank was convinced he was a genius in a class above and beyond mere mortals and entitled to live like a prince regardless of who suffered. So at times he might not pay his tradesmen their wages but would have no hesitation in buying lavish oriental rugs and antique Japanese prints. Even Mamah in love did not think this behavior acceptable but still she stuck with him. In Berlin they lived in the best hotels and settled in for luncheon in the same places the Kaiser might eat his imperial sandwich. Frank allowed money to run through his fingers thoughtlessly like water. By the time they made it back to the United States and began the construction of Frank’s ideal house to be called Taliesin, they have had a period of estrangement and then reconciliation. Frank encourages Mamah to pursue her own interests, involving the translation of the work of Swedish feminist Ellen Keys. But Frank is a larger than life, domineering sort of individual who would bulldoze over anything that got in the way of his own interests. Mamah sees this in him and confronts him from time to time with these character flaws but with little effect and remains for the most part under his control. He might have loved Mamah but there is the feeling that there are other women in the shadows of Frank’s life including his wife Catherine whom he does not divorce despite his avowal of wanting to spend the rest of his life with Mamah; his soul mate. I did not like him and could not see any intelligent woman sacrificing everything in her life including her children for such a narcissist. Unless… unless she was attracted to the beautiful material things Frank collected: the paintings, the custom designed furniture, the carpets as well as the beautiful home and garden he built. (Not nicely done, Mamah if this is true). Perhaps Nancy Horan means to show that nothing is simple and that the characters in even a work of historic fiction are not totally good or bad but like the vast majority of humanity we are a little bit of this and a little of that. However the whole point of this book was to meditate on the power of passion… I was not convinced the lives and love of Frank and Mamah were an inspirational example.
If you know something of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life you already know this story famously comes to a sad ending… (I’ll not reveal the ending but you can Google it if you like or better still read Loving Frank). Mamah did not have a chance to follow a great destiny. Who knows, given the opportunity and the time to grow stronger as a person she may have left Frank in his own little world enjoying his own company and in doing so may have gone on to fight for woman’s suffrage in a dramatic way… in time this may have blotted out all the ignominy heaped upon her so publically by the press. It was not to be, alas. She did not get beyond one sunny day in 1914.
The strength of this book is in the page-turner quality of the writing and the convincing portrayal of the period leading up to the first World War. It’s weakness is that this is supposed to be a love story but the author finds the object of her heroin’s affection less than loveable which is a daunting impediment for a work of fiction to overcome. Were this book not based on real people and events perhaps the author could have tweaked per portrayal of FLW into someone more likeable but that is pretty hard to do when there is so much material available on his life and personality. There are some very interesting interviews in grainy black and white on YouTube of him in old age, still looking quite handsome with a head of striking white shoulder length hair, sounding strong in his opinions and with an air of narcissism about him.
I went looking to see if Nancy Horan had written any other novels but it seems Loving Frank is the only one for now. ..alas.