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Nancy Horan's book "Loving Frank" is a fictional biography of Mamah Borthwick Cheney. I can already hear you saying "who?" and certainly any British audience would be expected to think that. Those interested in early 20th century architecture might recognize this name as being the woman who was Frank Lloyd Wright's lover - the woman he left his wife and family for which caused a scandal that rocked not only Chicago's society, but also the world of architecture. For those who don't know of Wright, he was of the Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" school of architecture (although he was quoted as saying "less is only more when more is bad"), to which he added his own organic elements in trying to make buildings blend in and feel like they belonged to the natural surroundings where they were placed. If that still doesn't help you, Wright designed the famous and stunningly spiraled Guggenheim Museum in New York.
This novel uses a great deal of fact in documenting the infamous love affair between these two people. Since little factual information is actually available about Mamah (pronounced MAY-mah), Horan had to use the skeleton of details she could find - including newspaper articles - and then flesh it out with her imagination. The truth is this woman was a fascinating person aside from her adultery with the famous architect. Keep in mind that this affair took place at the turn of the previous century when women didn't have the vote and were still considered their husband's property. Here was someone who left her husband and children to follow the man she loved. And yet, she also remained an individual in her own right. She had a university degree and before marrying Edwin Cheney, she worked in a library. After traveling to Europe with Wright, she became interested in the "Women Movement", and became acquainted with the Swedish feminist, Ellen Key. Mamah was known as the person who translated into English some of Key's most highly controversial essays on the subject.
But Horan didn't just chronicle these events; she also gave them her own fictional spin. Throughout the book, she takes elements of the research and tries to get into the heart and mind of Mamah. Thankfully, Horan didn't use the (quite frankly, vastly overused) first person point of view with this novel. Instead, using third person, Horan is able to delve not only into Mamah's live and perspective, but also investigate what was possibly going on with the other people in her life and the worlds she visited. This gives the reader a far better feeling of a three dimensional character than first person could ever achieve. I must admit, however, that since Horan's focus is so much on Mamah, we don't get such richness of personality for any of the other individuals in this novel - not even of Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Still, this didn't bother me as much as it could have, mostly because having come from Chicago myself (and my mother grew up in Oak Park where a vast number of his buildings still stand), I already know much about Wright, and there's no limit to the information about him available on the internet.
I should mention that when you read this book, you might initially feel that the language here feels a tad stilted. I believe that Horan used this style on purpose in order to give us a better feeling that we are reading of events from nearly a century ago. While this might make the book a touch slow going at first, by about the second or third chapter, I think you'll be able to get into this and really enjoy this character study. What's more, this fit in perfectly where Horan was able to quote actual letters or articles. It did seem to me that where Horan was able to find the most information about Mamah was through newspaper clippings relating directly the affair and its scandal. I have to admit that the book did get a touch bogged down with showing the press and their reactions, as well as her conjecture about Mamah and everyone else to it all. So while I think you'll get easily involved in this book, you might find this one section around the middle does drag a bit. Still, I have to say that what really makes this book such a good read is the way the ending builds up to an emotional climax, as if it was all fruit of the author's imagination and not based on fact (and for those who don't know the facts, if you want to read this book, don't cheat yourself by checking it out on-line). In this, the book feels far more like fiction than a fictionalized biography, and in my mind, that is the true beauty of this book.
For a fictional biography of someone who was such a celebrity in her day, but is relatively unknown today, I don't think you could ask for a better accounting. Horan truly brings Mamah Borthwick Cheney to life while giving us a glimpse into the world of the difficulties of being an extraordinary person living at a time when women were still very much second class citizens. Mamah's strength, individuality and perseverance could even be admired by today's standards, and I couldn't help thinking how much more she could have achieved and become, had she lived today instead of 100 years ago. I think that what impressed me most about Mamah was how she never lost sight of who she was and what she wanted to do with her life, despite the pressures on her to conform to society's norms. Moreover, she never allowed herself to be overshadowed by either her husband or later by her larger-than-life lover. No wonder the press was so interested in her - she would be considered remarkable even by today's standards. What's more impressive than anything else is that Horan succeeded in keeping this as a character study and not falling into sensationalism or turning it into a soap opera.
As you can see, I really loved reading this book - not just because I've always admired Frank Lloyd Wright's genius. "Loving Frank" is a beautifully written portrait of a fascinating woman. And while the book isn't perfect, it comes very close to it. I recommend this novel to anyone who wants an interesting read about someone they probably never knew about from an era long gone. I assure you this is about as far from the vilified "chick-lit" as can possibly be imagined, and believe that this would be enjoyed by men as well as women. I'll give it four stars only because of the part in the middle that drags a bit, but wish I could give it 4½ out of five, as that is what it deserves.
Thanks for reading!
Davida Chazan © March, 2009
The official website for this book can be found here http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/lovingfrank/
This book is available to buy new on Amazon for £5.59 or through their marketplace from £1.18.
The edition I have includes study questions as well as an interview with author Horan about the book - which is no less interesting than the book itself!
For those who decide to read this book, I suggest that only AFTER you've done so, should you look up Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ellen Key on the internet. You'll find lots about them all, but reading those before you've read this book could very much spoil this book for you. You have been warned!