Thursday, September 4, 2008

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

I have a bad habit when I start a new book.  I like to read the last few pages first.  I know, it's a bit ridiculous as it defeats the purpose of actually reading the entire book.  With Loving Frank, the NY Times Bestseller by new author, Nancy Horan, reading the end of this book wasn't necessary. I already knew the ending to this particular story, so in this case, it wasn't the ending, but the story itself that was so satisfying.

Loving Frank is the fictional account of the love affair between famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a middle to upper class housewife in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago and Mr. Wright's earliest arena for his distinct brand of architecture. Mamah is no ordinary housewife of the times, however. She is a college graduate from the University of Michigan at a time when women with degrees were extremely rare.  She spoke 6 languages and worked before her marriage as a librarian in Port Huron.  Her background can certainly provide the excuse for her restlessness as a housewife.

Mamah (pronounced May-mah, and a childhood nickname for Martha) and her husband, Edwin Cheney, hire Frank to design their new Oak Park house.  The affair starts when Mamah and Frank collaborate on the house and find the attraction between them too difficult to deny. It's a physical attraction, yes, but intellectually, these two are well suited.  In 1909,  he leaves his wife (and Mamah's friend, Catherine) and his six children. She leaves her husband and her two children, and they decamp to Europe, together, in a firestorm of disgrace. After all, this is the early 1900's, and adultery and child abandonment are looked upon with the utmost disdain and revulsion, and in this case, garners a fair degree of press coverage, none of it favorable.  In fact, the liaison is disastrous to Frank's burgeoning career and the trip to Europe does very little to improve that.

The description of their lives in Europe and the people they meet make it difficult to remember that this is a novel of historical fiction.  The writer makes it seem as if we are the third party in this relationship, privy to every thought of each of the characters, particularly Mamah, of which little in the way of history is available. When Frank convinces Mamah to end their exile and return to his family's home in southwestern Wisconsin, the Frank Lloyd Wright we are all familiar with re-emerges.  He designs Taliesin, his home on the Wisconsin prairie, as a tribute to her.  They are besieged by a relentless press there as well, but persevere to find a place for themselves among their neighbors.

What I found so fascinating about this book was the author's interpretation, through diaries and letters, of the thoughts that may have gone through Mamah's mind during her involvement with Frank.  The guilt of abandoning her family, her friends, her ideals and her children come through at every turn.  It humanized the story and made Mamah's voice real and her situation one that garners empathy at her choice to live a "true" life.

The ending of the story?  Anyone can google Mamah Borthwick Cheney or Frank Lloyd Wright and find out what happens in August, 1914 at Taliesin. But if you don't already know, I would hope that you wouldn't. It makes the entire book a living, breathing testament to an intelligent woman who knew herself and knew what she wanted out of life. And hopefully found it.

Go read this book.  You'll be thinking about it long after the last page is turned. It is exceptional.

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