Loving Frank
by Nancy Horan

Ballantine Books, 2007. ISBN 9780345494993.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 09/17/2007

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream

In 1972, I attended a conference at Frank Lloyd Wright's famous house, Taliesin, and I've carried a vision of it ever since: its startlingly flat planes, the Oriental lines of its roofs, the way it snugs into the side of a Wisconsin hill. And indoors, the Zen-like simplicity of furnishings, the wide windows that open onto green landscape, and the glowing walls that seem to shimmer with their own inner light. I can understand why Mamah Borthwick Cheney fell in love with its architect and loved him with a steady, outrageous passion until she died in 1914.

Loving Frank is a fictional recreation of the true story of the adulterous affair with Wright that pulled Mamah (pronounced Ma-may) Cheney away from her young children, her husband, and their prosperous, comfortable life in Oak Park, Illinois. Wright himself was married, the father of six children, and a rising young architect only ten years out of his apprentice work with Louis Sullivan, one of the most famous American architects of his day. The two were drawn together in 1903 when Wright designed a house for the Cheneys.

Mamah Borthwick was a scholar and feminist when she married Edwin Cheney, and one of the things Nancy Horan does best in this tumultuous novel is to show how the egotistical, charismatic, melodramatic Wright reawakened her desire to be more than simply a mother and wife-to seek truths and dreams beyond anything available to those who led lives constrained by convention. Horan also brings to life Mamah's terrible dilemma: how to create and sustain a life based on passion when that means giving up her two children, whom she also deeply loves. (Edwin Cheney divorced his wife after Mamah went to Europe with Frank in 1909, and was granted custody of their children). And Horan tellingly illuminates the conflicted relationship between Mamah and Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist and writer whose liberal (some would say libertine) ideas about sex, marriage, and child-care were far ahead of her time. Mamah, a linguist, studied Swedish so that she could translate Key's work into English.

Throughout, the novel is marked with the dailiness of life a century ago, small details that bring a long-gone world into startling immediacy. Here's just one. Mamah, unable to sleep because of her conflicts about the relationship, gets up in the night and goes down to the kitchen:

When she opened the cupboard, a small brown moth flew out. She knew what that meant. If she didn't get rid of the flour and rice and cereal in the cabinet, if she waited until Wednesday, when the cleaning girl came, there would be two dozen moths hanging upside down from the shelves... In the end, she dumped the entire contents of the cabinet, then filled a bowl with hot water and ammonia. 'How has it come to this?' she wondered as she scrubbed... How had she come to a point where she could so easily tell herself that adultery with a friend's husband was all right?

Loving Frank is all the more remarkable, I think, because it is Nancy Horan's first novel. The pace and intensity that compels the reader to keep turning pages may lag a bit in the middle and drop off after the tragic events of 1914. And I might have wished for a more detailed documentation of sources, so that I could have a clearer idea of just how much of the story is based on fact. Still, these are minor reservations about what is overall a fine achievement. Loving Frank is a rich, compellingly imaginative work that allows us to see into the private emotional lives of two intriguing people: the man who significantly influenced American architecture for over fifty years, and the woman who loved him. It's a book that will be remembered.

Read the first chapter of Loving Frank.

Nancy Horan is a former journalist and resident of Oak Park (she lived not far from the Cheney house). Learn more at her website. (It was under construction at the time this review was written.)

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