Friday, July 11, 2008

True Love

I'm not usually a fan of historical novels, so I wasn't certain I would be interested in Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, the story of a love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah (pronounced MAY-muh) Borthwick Cheney. Even the title was off-putting – it sounded like a gushy account from an enamored groupie. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Mamah and Edwin Cheney were a young married couple in Oak Park Illinois in 1903 when they commissioned Wright to build them a bungalow in his already famous Prairie Style. Although Wright was already married, a love affair began, and in 1909 Mamah and Frank both abandoned their families –including his six children and her two – and 'eloped' to Berlin on what the couple called a “spiritual hegira”. The public outrage that began immediately would follow them for years to come. The sensationalist journalism of the era, even in mainstream newspapers, feasted on the scandal, and Mrs. Cheney was frequently painted as the villain. Wright's wife called her a “vampire”, and the press described her as “of a highly temperamental disposition, capricious and sentimental to a degree”. Wright's career suffered as clients dropped him to avoid association with the scandal. After their return from Europe the couple eventually settled in the now famous Taliesin which Wright built in the hills of Spring Green Wisconsin, hoping to escape the public eye.

Nancy Horan, in her debut novel, attempts to rescue Mamah Borthwick Cheney from history's forgotten footnotes. She shows us a woman who struggles to find her own identity. In a time before women's suffrage, Mamah encounters Swedish feminist Ellen Key during her stay in Europe. She is profoundly influenced by Key's philosophy of female independence and free love, and even learns Swedish in order to translate Key's work for American publication. But Horan does not present Cheney as a haloed feminist heroine. Mamah is conflicted and guilt-ridden, always trying to find balance in her roles of mother, lover, writer, often disappointed with herself. And she is not simply an adoring acolyte to Wright. Much as she admires his genius, she clearly sees his shortcomings. But her love and understanding of his creative vision nourish him. Horan presents a complex, evolving woman, and I enjoyed her fictionalization of this fascinating and ultimately tragic love story.

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