Written by Lauryn Smith
If you have not already, I suggest picking up a copy of Nancy Horan's "Loving Frank" so that you, like so many architecture aficionados, can come to understand the man who is Frank Lloyd Wright.
“Loving Frank” is Horan’s first historical novel. In it, she tells Wright's tale through the lens of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who is best known for her love affair with the famed architect. The book provides a unique glimpse into Wright's life, but Horan demonstrates that Mamah is also an interesting a character, and for reasons other than her scandalous romance with the man whom the American Institute of Architects would come to deem "the greatest American architect of all time." Horan gets points for doing two stand-out characters justice in one true-to-life novel.
Told chronologically, “Loving Frank” begins in 1903, the year in which Wright is commissioned to design Mamah’s new home in Oak Park, which is just outside of Chicago. During the construction of the house, Mamah and Wright develop an attraction, an attraction that draws both from their respective spouses and children. Together they begin a physically and emotionally tumultuous journey, which comes to a tragic end. I desperately want to tell you what happens, but talk about a spoiler! Let's move on.
During their time together, Mamah and Wright are exposed to new realms and ideologies, both actual and ideological. While a good portion of the book details the drudgery of bad press and struggling family dynamics, there is a satisfying chunk dedicated to the philosophies of world travel and women’s rights. The latter aspect makes the novel a worthy read as it differentiates “Loving Frank” from generic narratives pertaining to love affairs. This one is deep.
For starters, Mamah is a strong female character, particularly considering the time period. Through Mamah, Horan portrays timeless gender-specific struggles, predominantly those that arise when comparing a woman's various societal roles (e.g., mother, partner, thinker, etc.) against her ability to create and philosophize.
The book also contains profound secondary characters such as Ellen Key, a prolific Swedish essayist who advocates for women. Horan illustrates the strong effect Key’s works have on Mamah. In light of her disreputable predicament, Mamah garners strength, motivation and understanding from Key and her words. The feminist insights Horan relates on Mamah's behalf, whether true to the real-life Mamah or not, are fascinating in how intense and genuine they appear.
Horan’s approach to “Loving Frank” is on point. Her extensive research is reflected in both plot and prose, and she seamlessly integrates fact and fiction, particularly when it comes to dialog. The plot strongly reflects actual events, but as Horan writes to characters' thoughts and expressions, she uses truth as mere guidance. The result is an artfully presented story that feels completely accurate.
This authenticity is best realized in Mamah’s fabricated diary entries. As there is little in the historical record on Mamah and her relationship with Wright, the undeniably realistic tone of the entries is all the more stunning. The way in which Horan interweaves philosophy and chronology is so simple and natural that you may unintentionally begin to reflect on everyday life in a similar, smooth, unencumbered manner.
One of Mamah’s most compelling entries is as follows: “I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.” I am sure many can relate to this statement. But how many attempt to make a legitimate change? To feel something? To have an impact? To do more than settle?
Mamah is a fine example of someone who does. Through her, Horan demonstrates that there is more to life than complacency. Perhaps it is in this regard that Horan aims to inspire readers. Change is tough, particularly when it means hurting the people closest to you. But as Mamah’s character illustrates, you cannot know happiness without knowing sadness.
It might be said that the details "Loving Frank" provides regarding how Mamah and Wright become infatuated with one another can be more comprehensive. On the other hand, Horan makes up for the lack by digging deep into the minds of the book's characters, delving into the causes of their high highs and low lows. In this sense, nuances trump particulars. “Loving Frank” is an interesting read, and the craft with which Horan tells the story makes it pop. She brings life to a buried tale. Her style is graceful yet powerful, detailed yet easy, simple yet enlightening.
In my opinion, one of the best things about reading is being introduced to new concepts. Familiarity, such as that which can be gained though reading, often catalyzes the drive to learn more. "Loving Frank" includes a handful of factoids that will undoubtedly inspire readers to research Wright and his peers. Not going to lie, thanks to having read Horan’s novel, I now have Brendan Gill’s “Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright” sitting on my "to read" shelf.
Some might say that “Loving Frank” is slow, perhaps even flowery. It is a story based on a love affair, after all. But the prose as it relates to the relationship between Mamah and Wright, and the presentation of the context of said relationship, results in a fresh take on timeless, understated issues. And I can say from experience, the book is just as thought-provoking the second time around.
So, will you walk away loving Frank? Maybe not the man, but certainly the fantasy, the ideology and the hope he purports.
Title: Loving Frank
Author: Nancy Horan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 7, 2007
Page count: 362
List price: $16
Awards: 2009 James Fenimore Cooper Prize
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