Book Club Review: December 2013

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Blog by Cindy Bushey


In this era of broadcasting all types of private affairs to the public via Facebook and Twitter, it is easy to forget that in the not-too-distant past society’s standards forbid the flaunting of affairs of the heart.  Indeed, people who flouted  early 20th century mores ran the very real risk of being shunned and ostracized, losing jobs, and even personal injury.  For its 50th book, Zion’s readers traveled back to the early 1900’s in Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, to get to know such a couple – well-known architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

Wright had already designed his famous “prairie house” and was determined to continue trying to bring his creations into greater balance with nature wherever they were erected.  However, at this early point in his career, he was “hustling for work” as one reader put it.  He took commissions wherever he could get them and designed both private residences and commercial buildings.  Thus, he came into Mamah and Edwin Cheney’s lives as he was hired to design and build a house for them.  Mamah came late to marriage, having pursued an education and career.   She admits her marriage was not for love but because of Edwin’s persistence and the fact that all her friends had found mates.  She and Edwin had two children, and she was struggling with depression after the birth of the second when larger-than-life Frank Wright appeared.

Mamah, the youngest child in her family and spoiled, was very intelligent and could speak and read many different languages.   She was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage and, since she and Edwin were well-to-do and employed a nanny, could attend various lectures and devote time to her causes.  However, Mamah and Edwin never connected on an intellectual level.  Wright, who had six children with wife Catherine, was a free spirit determined to follow his muse and focused on how his architectural ideas could enhance the world for others.  He was also arrogant, self-absorbed, spoiled by his mother and sisters, and convinced people should be awed, impressed, and thankful for his architectural gifts – so much so that he constantly “forgot” to pay bills to employees, tradesmen, and fellow business owners.  He wanted out of his marriage, Mamah wanted out of hers, both advocated following their hearts, time and opportunity were available, and so the affair began.

Eventually, a decision was reached to start a life together, and Mamah simply tucked her children into bed one night and left to join Frank in Japan and Germany.  His reputation in Europe was greater than at home.  Trying to fly under the radar of the press as a celebrity was as stressful in the early 1900’s as now, and finally the lovers were discovered.  Author Horan does a brilliant job of conveying Wright’s outsize ego and Mamah’s sense of entitlement.  Although this is a work of fiction, Horan bases her characters’ development and conversations on several papers and letters which were preserved and meticulously gives credit at the end of the novel.  She truthfully presents these flawed personalities for whom our readers could summon little sympathy or empathy.  We could not understand the willingness to abruptly leave loved children by either character and had no patience with the rationalization they used.  As one reader pointed out, Frank and Mamah’s affair sucked others into the destruction of relationships, including Mamah’s sister, Lizzie, to whom the care of her children fell.  Weighing it all, our readers were faced with what we felt was the book’s ultimate question – do two people have the right to mess up everyone else’s lives in order to “find themselves”?  Zion’s readers voted a resounding “No”!

The author follows Frank and Mamah through their European stays where Mamah is introduced to the work of Ellen Keyes, an early Swedish advocate of the women’s movement.  Here Mamah thinks she has found someone who articulates her own thoughts and beliefs, and she undertakes the translation of Keyes’ works in the United States so they can be published.  Mamah and Frank return home to Wisconsin where he builds them a new home at one with the hills and meadows surrounding it and close to his relatives and roots.  He calls it Taliesin.

While Frank Wright maintained a relationship with his children throughout the affair and visited and supported them on a fairly regular basis, he despaired of Catherine ever agreeing to a divorce.  Mamah obtained a divorce and resumed use of her maiden name.  While the structure of Taliesin rose, she began to reestablish a connection with her children and came to understand the magnitude of what she had voluntarily lost.  Reporters hounded them on their own doorstep sent by papers whose straight-laced, mid-western owners determined the tone of the publication.  One reader thought it interesting to note that the owners’ morals had no problem with publicly chastising Frank and Mamah in the paper and thus steering attention away from their own actions.  Whether righteousness or circulation drove the press coverage, Frank and Mamah’s affair received national and international coverage.  Frank lost several commissions, and Mamah became aware of his practice of small lies, deceits, and nonpayment of bills.  His dedication to getting the best of people and striking lopsided bargains brought out the dark side of his character.

Taliesin, while still under construction, became a refuge and fortress as they conducted their lives in a sort of bubble.  Not much was allowed to intrude on their complete self-awareness, even the events leading up to World War I which certainly would have to have been evident on their travels in Europe.  Some of our readers felt more description of this tumultuous time in history would have been appropriate and would have added to their appreciation of the book.  Others would have liked to hear and see more architectural details about Frank’s various projects.  Perhaps the author, who wrote from Mamah’s perspective, gave the world events and drafting table papers short shrift to mimic Frank and Mamah’s characters.  She focused our attention on them just as their own attention was focused inward.

That total immersion in each other was not always believable to Zion’s readers who felt that Frank Wright gave up very little while Mamah gave up everything to pursue a life with him.  As another reader said, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction.  How ironic that two people striving for balance in their arts had such unbalanced personal lives.  When the end of the relationship came, our readers were astounded at the form it took, and our sympathies lay with the innocent children.  The author packed such emotion into the end of her novel that many readers felt distinctly unsettled for a few days after finishing the book.

With such a gripping story and explosive ending, it should come as no surprise that six of our readers gave Loving Frank a one thumb up rating.  Finding that Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick inspired neither love nor compassion, three readers remained neutral about the book.  As snow descends this winter, those with a few spare hours and a cup of hot chocolate, coffee, or tea could enjoy this fictitious account of a tempestuous romance.