Published in 2007, this recount of a seven year love affair between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, seems to be getting a second wave of publicity. I can recall the cover being all over bookstore tables 2 years ago with posters all around. Now that I picked this up from my “To Be Read Pile,” it would seem I’m not the only one circling back around. Members of my book club brought the title up for a future read this year, and I’ve seen the historical romance appear in several magazines and book club lists as well.
Before I can tell you about the novel, I have to share with you what I learned about the author. Nancy Horan was first introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work while living in Oak Park, Illinois for 24 years. Horan even lived on the same street as Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who in 1907 commissioned Wright to build a home for her and her family. On the local tours of Wright’s houses and in a few biographies she read, Horan began to wonder who this “Mamah” woman was. (Mamah is pronounced May-muh. A derivative of Margaret, though Mamah was always named just Mamah; her grandmother liked the sound of it.) Little is told of the affair between Mrs. Edwin Cheney and the architect, most scholars stick to his work and pay little attention to the innovator’s personal life. But Horan knew there was more to the story. Coincidentally, the affair lasted seven years, and it took Ms. Horan that long to write the book.
Those of you who’ve read my book reviews before know I LOVE digging into how the author did their research and what drew them to the story. The why’s behind why this particular author was the one to write the tale! Having lived down the street from a Wright created home for so many years, that was the least bit of research Horan did. The author amazes me immensely with the amount of research she did. She read all about Wright’s architecture, the movement of modernism, Wright’s autobiography (in which he never outrightly names Mamah), his son, John Lloyd Wright’s biography, the translated works that Mamah did for Swiss philosopher Ellen Key, copies of the only surviving letters by Mamah, reminiscing books by the neighbors of the Cheney’s, and she traveled to places that Mamah lived in order to get to know her. When first beginning the project, she was writing in several different points of view, but a few years later changed the whole thing to be from Mamah’s perspective. You can hear more about Horan’s own love affair with the research for Loving Frank in her interview with BookBrowse.com.
Horan’s background is in journalism, and she has covered a range of topics in her years from politics to fashion. After taking a creative fiction class at the University of Chicago, she discovered she rather liked it. Loving Frank is her first novel, and she’s been praised for how confident her writing is as a debut author. I couldn’t agree more! The language of Horan’s book is beautiful and enthralling. The story of this couple is tumultuous, as is usually the case when families become separated and new relationships are formed. Despite the ups and downs of the characters, Horan’s writing maintains an intensity that I think Ms. Borthwick Cheney would be proud of.
Living during the turn of the century, Mamah was a woman who would latch on to change. While the Woman Movement happened all around her, the Suffragists marching, Mamah’s ideals followed more so of expanding one’s own mind. It wasn’t enough to have equal rights, one had to allow for constant transformation of person and ideas. If Frank Lloyd Wright is one of America’s most profound natural architects, than Mamah Borthwick Cheney is arguably one of the least known, though best examples of transcendentalism and free thought.
One of the things Horan accomplishes in this book so well are the dichotomies Mamah faced in life. In fact, that’s how Horan plotted the novel. She took the major decision moments of Mamah’s life and plotted them down, then looked to define and develop how Mamah came to those decisions. One of the biggest battles Mamah faced was her role as a mother. She deeply cared for her children and there are many who would criticize her for the years she spent apart from them. I think Horan was able to give the reader some perspective, selfish as it may seem in parts, of the whole picture and the grave seriousness of what was at stake for each person.
And then we have Frank. The subject of so much devotion, Frank Lloyd Wright changed the life of Mamah, and she for him, forever. While the fame of Wright today is vastly known and celebrated, that was not always so. He was always awarded, his talent was undeniable. But the architect needed constant beautiful things around him. These shopping sprees and grandiose plans resulted in financial debt on more than one occasion. He dreamed of a perfect world where students could learn from him and create their own projects, yet he was quick to judge and not forthcoming with praise, though he always wanted it for himself.
Frank had a family of his own too when he began the affair. Six kids in fact. But Frank’s version of time and Mamah’s were entirely different interpretations. His work and celebrity afforded him more luxury than Mamah in the 1900’s and he was able to go anywhere he pleased.
The biggest dream of his was to build a home for he and Mamah in Spring Green, Wisconsin on the property near where he grew up. Even while traveling in Italy and studying the architecture there, he couldn’t get the rolling hills of the midwest out of his mind. That dream came true when he built Taliesin.
Loving Frank isn’t a book I would’ve thought to be spectacular. It isn’t a story I would’ve sought out. But I am wholeheartedly thrilled I took this book off the shelf and listened to its tale. It didn’t matter to me that at times I agreed and disagreed with the decisions Mamah made in life. I wanted to be her friend and talk feminism and philosophy with her over dinner at Taliesin. I wanted her to share her thoughts with me even more on what it was like to be her.
So go ahead, walk over to that “to be read pile” or bookshelf, and pick a title. You may just surprise yourself. And if you’re not sure what to read next, might I recommend Loving Frank? You won’t regret it.
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