“Loving Frank” is a book that will leave few people indifferent, even if it doesn’t mean to be a comfortable experience for the reader. It’s not that it’s difficult to read, on the contrary the voice flows freely and it’s something of a page turner because you want to know what happens next all the time. But it’s more about “pride and prejudice”, and how the two main characters have been judged by their contemporaries, and in turn, by us readers. I discovered myself a lot more conservative than I thought I was, and indeed it’s not something one likes to realize.
Frank in the title is Frank Lloyd Wright, the architecture genius of the early 20C. And the person who loves him is Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a married woman and mother of 2, who left her family for him in 1907. Wright as well did leave his wife and children, but the novel is centered on Mamah, and on the aftermaths of her decision.
This got me to ponder about the chosen approach for this book, especially as it is inspired by real events, and how revelatory it is for our present time. A classic, 19C approach would have painted Mamah enjoying a few moments of guilty pleasure to expiate and suffer for the rest of her life. A feminist approach in the 20C would perhaps have insisted on the early years of the affair, how Mamah discovered that marriage and motherhood made her frustrated over unfulfilled potential, how liberating her affair was and how Frank Lloyd Wright, by considering her equal intellectually, enabled her to push her limits and be more than “just” a mother and housewife. Probably such an approach would have finished the book when Frank and Mamah escaped to Europe and enjoyed a relative freedom away from judgment and self-imposed guilt.
Horan’s approach, chronological from 1904 to 1914, is more true to life, and it’s a difficult path because as a result there’s no obvious narrative arch for the novel. It forces us to contemplate how life goes on, year after year, when a woman takes the difficult decision to leave her family behind. It’s a bit like a contemporary divorce: nothing is black and white. Mamah’s husband, Edwin Cheney, is a bit dull, but he’s no horrible macho – in fact, he granted her the divorce and allowed Mamah to see her children. Frank Lloyd Wright is a brilliant genius, but he’s no Prince Charming. He’s fast and loose with money and very egocentric. It’s very difficult sometimes for us readers to understand why Mamah fell (and remained) under his spell. The exhilaration and thrills of the beginning of their romance make way for compromises and doubts.
Mamah herself is a character difficult to love. She certainly didn’t choose rashly to leave her children behind, but she comes out as both single-minded and self-centred. It’s a dangerous line to walk, and many times I found myself disapproving her. She struggles to find a meaning for her life, but it didn’t seem that she achieved much eventually (translating feminist books seems a bit weak, but that’s fact, not fiction). The ending (which I won’t divulge here) came as a huge shock and retrospectively softened my opinion of Mamah, even if not for a good reason. I ended up pitying her more than anything. It’s not a book that I loved, but it was interesting nonetheless.