Loving Frank by Nancy Horan; © 2007 Ballantyne Books
Our second book for my Monday night book club this year is Nancy Horan's first novel "Loving Frank". One of our members had read it and highly recommended it. Splashed across the cover, the words "New York Times Bestseller", gave promise to good things to come. Let's see, shall we...
The "Frank" that is mentioned on the cover is none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect that swept the nation and the world with his innovative ideas and organic architecture at the turn of the 19th century. While the novel certainly touches on his beliefs and mode of architecture, the main protaganist in the story is Mamah Borthwick Cheney. "Who," you ask? Well, Mamah was one of Frank's clients, but more importantly she was also his lover.
This novel beautifully recounts the love affair between two people that find themselves unhappily married to others. Both Frank and Mamah are floundering in love-less marriages, where their children serve to sustain their days. When Mamah and her husband Edwin commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design and build a new home for them, neither of them could have foreseen the life-altering consequences. With Edwin busy at the head of his company, it is left to Mamah to oversee the design process for their new home. Mamah finds someone willing to talk and listen to her, that she does not have in her husband. She and Frank discover a compassionate ear in each other and their business partnership quickly leads beyond mere architectural plans into a torrid love affair.
While the story of an illicit love affair may seem tepid by today's standards, one must remember the time period in which this relationship occurred. Universities had only formally allowed women to study in 1868 in the US and 1880 in Canada. Mamah was lucky enough to have been privileged with a formal education. While she had been in the workforce before she was married, she left her job stayed home to raise her family upon becoming Mrs. Edwin Cheney. Her life and fortunes were dictated by that of her husband. In fact, women only gained the right to vote in 1919 in Canada and 1920 in the United States, long after Mamah and Frank met in 1903.
Horan crafts a fictional account of the real-life love affair between Mamah and Frank with an easy reading style. While she adheres to accuracy in the historical facts of their relationship, she gives a very probable and heart-wrenching view of what these lovers may have felt and gone through in the fight for their love. Giving insights into the Suffrage movement of the time serves to strengthen the characters and their struggles. I blissfully laid the book down 50 pages before the end to get some shut-eye, only to have the shocking conclusion to Horan's novel hit me in the light of the day. To know that their story was based in fact, made the novel all the more poignant.
I followed up the novel with a quick peek into the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation's website, to see some of the structures he designed and read the real-life history of his life and works. He was an interesting man, self-assured to a fault. As noted by the review on the interior flap of the book "If Frank Lloyd Wright is the reason people will pick up this book, Mamah Borthwick is the reason they will keep reading it -Chicago Tribune". I read it to the end and have to agree. Mamah's life was hounded by challenges, but she persevered and stayed true to self till the end. She was quite a woman during a difficult time and this novel was well worth the read.