Sunday, March 23, 2008

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Frank Lloyd Wright's name is one that is well known to me, although I do not know very much about the man himself. This book is about a time in his life when he was first becoming known in Chicago, where he meets Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. He designs the Cheney's home, but his relationship with Mamah does not really begins until a year or two later. Loving Frank is written from Mamah's point of view, in her voice. She was a feminist about whom not much is known, except that she was the translator for Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist writer. This book is written as historical fiction, even though it centers on these fairly recent, very real, historical characters. Horan uses the few writings of Mrs. Borthwick Cheney to give her a voice for this book.
Mamah and Frank's relationship is a difficult one, for many reasons. In the early 1900's, it was pratically unheard of for a woman to leave her husband for another man, at least for a woman in Mamah's level of society to do so. She eventually is able to get a divorce from her husband, Edwin Cheney, although Frank never divorces his wife Catherine. But even for a divorced woman, prospects are dim. Many people feel that the scandal of divorce is worse than the scandal of an affair, and Mamah continues to be ostracized. She is seen as an unfit mother, though she believes that it will be better for her children if she lives honestly with herself and with the world. The relationship creates problems for Wright, as the scandal becomes headline material, and his clients fall away. But through it all, they persevere in their love for each other.
It really is a fascinating love story, and the perspective it gives on Wright is very interesting. Like many artistic geniuses, he has shortages in other areas, most notably in this case is his handling of monetary affairs. There is also a sense that he is above the common man, and so not subject to their laws. He does not have to pay those who help him because they should be honored to work with such a great artist. For all his foibles, however, he is still a fascinating character, and Mamah loves him immensely.
**Do not read further if you do not want the end of the story told!!**
I cannot speak about this book without addressing the end of their love affair. I was shocked for days after finishing the book, although I suppose if I would have actually known the history, I would not have been. Mamah and her children, along with four of the workers at their home in Wisconsin, are brutally murdered by a deranged servant. Who knew that such a terrible thing had happened in the home of Frank Lloyd Wright? It is a sensational bit of history, one that many people may be aware of while reading the book. I was obviously not aware of it. As a result, I kept thinking, I can't believe that Mamah died that way. She truly becomes real to you as you read the book, and to find out that she was murdered is a terrible blow. Horan does a fantastic job of bringing the story to life, even this horrifying part of it. She gives life to a wonderful woman that many people of her time preferred to forget.

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