Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Frankly Amazing Woman


Loving Frank by Nancy Horan


Anyone interested in early 20th century architecture might recognize the name Mamah Borthwick Cheney as being the woman who was Frank Lloyd Wright's lover - for whom he left his wife and family, 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 (quoted as saying, "less is only more when more is bad"). To this, Wright added his own organic elements in trying to make buildings blend in and feel like they belonged to their natural surroundings.

This novel uses a great deal of fact in documenting the infamous love affair between these two. Since little information is actually available about Mamah (pronounced MAY-mah), Horan used the skeleton of details available, and fleshed out the rest with her imagination. The truth is she was a fascinating woman aside from her affair with the famous architect, which took place at the turn of the previous century when women didn't have the vote and were legally 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 met the Swedish feminist, Ellen Key. Mamah translated some of Key's most highly controversial essays on the subject into English.

Horan doesn't just chronicle these events; she also gives them her own spin. Throughout the book, she takes elements of the research and tries to get into the heart and mind of Mamah. Using a third person narrative, Horan delves into Mamah's live and perspective, as well as investigates 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. This wasn't much of a problem for me because as an ex-Chicagoan (whose mother grew up in Oak Park where many of his buildings still stand), I already know Wright's life and work. For those without this advantage, there's no limit of information about him on the internet.

Readers might initially feel that the language here feels a tad stilted, but 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. This might make the book slow going at first, but by about the second or third chapter, you'll get into this and really begin to enjoy this character study. What's more, this fit in perfectly when Horan quoted actual letters or articles, mostly directly relating to the affair and its scandal. This somewhat dominated one section of the story, which made it drag a bit, but that passes quite quickly. From there, Horan builds up to an emotional climax, as if it was all fruit of the author's imagination and not based on fact. This is what makes this book such a good read, feeling far more like fiction than a fictionalized biography. (For those who don't know the facts, I suggest you don't cheat yourself by checking it out on-line.)

For a story about someone who was such a celebrity in her day, but who 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 an extraordinary person living when women were still 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. For me, the most impressive thing about Mamah was how she never lost sight of the person she was and what she wanted, despite the pressures on her to conform to society's norms. Moreover, she never allowed herself to be overshadowed by either her husband or by her larger-than-life lover. No wonder the press was so interested in her - she was remarkable even by today's standards. The true artistry here is how Horan succeeded in keeping this as a character study and never fell into the traps of sensationalism or turning this story it into a soap opera.

I really loved reading this book - not just because I've always admired Frank Lloyd Wright's genius, but because it is a beautifully written portrait of a captivating and outstanding woman (in all senses of the word), from a time when they were supposed to be seen and not heard. I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to read about someone they probably never knew about from an era long gone, and I believe that both men and women will enjoy it. For all this, I'm giving it four and a half stars out of five. 


"Loving Frank" by Nancy Horan is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada and Australia), iTunes (iBook and audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. 

Nancy Horan is also the author of "Under the Wide and Starry Sky"

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