Monday, April 23, 2007

Loving Frank

I finished this novel on Saturday night. When I first started reading this book, it really pulled me in, and I couldn't stop for about 200 pages. Then, suddenly, I tired of it. I got bored, and set it down for about two weeks. The problem, I think, is that it's historical fiction, and when historical fiction ventures a little too far into the non-fiction side, my I-can't-finish-non-fiction affliction flares up.

So, basically, it's the story of a love affair between the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, both of whom are married with children when they meet. Leaving their families for each other would be hard to do in modern times. Back then, it was incredibly scandalous and completely immoral. Added to the fact that women were not able to support themselves very well and needed men, this was a very hard period for Mamah in particular. She was not only leaving her family, but discovering herself and her needs and strengths, something that women of that era didn't frequently have the freedom to do. There is a lot of discussion of the morals of the time, and the beginnings of the feminist movement, and not a whole lot about Frank Lloyd Wright. He happens to design a few buildings during his relationship with Mamah, but this book is not about his work.

Saturday night, I picked up the book again finally, for a little bedtime reading. Since I had gotten bored with it by then, it seemed like a good choice to help me drift off. But, no. About 3 pages past the point where I had set it down for two weeks, something incredibly dramatic happens and I couldn't help but finish the book that night. Luckily I didn't have too much left to read or I might have been up late.

Overall feeling about the book: worth reading, lots of interesting snapshots of Europe and America and Feminism in the early 1900's. The story line drags a bit in the middle but picks up again at the end. If you like setting and period pieces, that should hold you over through the slower plot times.


jacqueline said...

this book sounds really good actually (but I like historical fiction/non-fiction). I think I particularly might like this book cause when I lived in Madison I lived 2 doors away from a house that Frank designed called "waterfalls" or something like that. I used to cut through their yard with my bike some days.

rednib said...

I think you'd like it. It's great when you can connect somehow with a book. I think knowing one of Frank's buildings might be a good way to connect to this book.

jacqueline said...

turns out I lived near The Airplane House, not the waterfall one.

my bad.


rednib said...

Review of this book came out today:

Book Review
A vivid construction of Frank Lloyd Wright's love

By Kris Gilroy Higginson

Special to The Seattle Times


Author Nancy Horan

Author appearance

Nancy Horan will read from "Loving Frank," 7 p.m., Wednesday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplace; 7 p.m. Sept. 24, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or; and 7 p.m. Nov. 1, Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharbor

Mamah Borthwick Cheney wrote in 1911 that she had "made a choice in harmony with my own soul" after leaving her husband and young children to build a life with Frank Lloyd Wright.

But sensational headlines quickly intruded on that harmony.


Headlines about the famed architect's abandonment of his own family were no less condemning.

The couple drew dramatic media coverage again because of a horrific event at Taliesin, the Wisconsin home Frank built for them.

These days, with the headlines long faded, Mamah's life and her relationship with Frank are sometimes just an aside in histories of the country's best-known architect. Yet in her debut novel, "Loving Frank" (Ballantine, 362 pp., $23.95), Whidbey Island author Nancy Horan has transformed the half-forgotten affair into a compelling tale of love, loss and wrenching sacrifices.

Horan has brought Mamah to life by combing newspapers, letters and Frank's autobiography, then drawing from her keen imagination to fill the gaps between facts. The resulting character is a spirited and very real woman who wrestles with what it means to be Frank's partner and simultaneously a mother, a feminist and an intellectual in the early 20th century.

Horan achieves a careful balance in "Loving Frank." She leaves no doubt that Mamah and Frank shattered their families when they fled to Europe together. But from our vantage point inside Mamah's head, it's hard not to care about her — especially when she realizes the harm she has done.

Although Mamah's relationship with Frank isn't always smooth, he is her solace, and his unconventional Taliesin becomes a treasured refuge.

"Most astounding to Mamah was the space within; it was a dimension unto itself," Horan writes. "What could be more expressive of the American ideal than a home where a person could feel sheltered and free at the same time? ... It was as if there were no walls to limit her view or thoughts or spirit as they expanded out and out. This was the 'democratic architecture' Frank had been straining to achieve since she'd known him."

Horan draws Frank's character with so many vivid dimensions that he nearly jumps off the pages to stride through the room. Mamah, who eventually comes to see his faults clearly, describes his eccentricity in her (fictional) journal: "Frank Wright — what a joy and puzzle you are. ... By day you dash around here looking like a country squire who has fallen into a pig trough. You sashay out into the middle of construction in your suit, just off the train from Chicago. When you should dress up, you don't. A couple of weeks ago, when we drove into Spring Green, you actually went into the bank barefoot. I sat in the car, trying to go unnoticed, while you went to see your banker dressed as Huck Finn."

Horan writes with liveliness, yet her language becomes artfully spare as she leads up to the shocker at the end of the book. The last few chapters are written and paced in such a way that even if you know the story of what happened at Taliesin, you won't be able to tear yourself away. And when it's all over, Mamah and her struggles are likely to stay with you for a long time.

Kris Gilroy Higginson is the news editor at The Seattle Times