This month our group read the bestseller, Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. This historical novel attempts to recreate the dramatic and tragic relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Told in third person omniscient, this novel is mostly from Mamah's perspective. The story begins when both lovers are married to others and follows their emerging relationship, as well as Mamah's feminist studies and Frank's early career. The chapters are short and the pace of the story is quite brisk for such a rich, detailed historical novel. And, even though I have visited Frank and Mamah's Taliesin retreat in Spring Green, WI and knew of the story's tragic end before reading the book, I was still captivated by Horan's re-imagining of historical events. Horan includes an end note with details of her research process and a documentation of her sources.
Our group began its discussion with the ending of the story. SPOILER ALERT. We discussed the dramatic scenes in which Mamah and her children are axed to death and set afire by a servant. Many participants thought Horan had created this melodramatic ending, but as I told them, sometimes the truth is a whole lot worse than anything that can be imagined. A few participants also pointed out how Horan built tension as we get closer to the murder: the pace of the story quickens, we begin to feel anxious, and the mood darkens.
We then moved on to a discussion of Mamah's motivations and whether or not we felt she was selfish. One person pointed out that Mamah's brand of feminism was more at home in the 1990s than in her era (the 1910s). We were all conflicted on how to feel about Mamah. Many could not get past the fact that she abandoned her children, others felt despite the pain Mamah and Frank caused to their families and friends, the two were meant to be together. Still others felt Ellen Key (the Swedish feminist whom Mamah was translating) got it right by saying that divorce and free love are important for women, but not at the expense of maternal love. This led to a long discussion on the legacy of feminism and the reprecussions for women today.
Although Mamah rightfully took up the bulk of our conversation, we tackled the question of whether or not Frank came off as an admirable figure in this novel. It was fairly unanimous that although he was brilliant, he was kind of an arrogant jerk.
One character did withstand all criticism, Mamah's sister Lizzie. We all found her admirable for raising Mamah's children after Mamah abandoned them to find love with Frank and a meaning to her life. But more importantly, as a literary device, the scene where Lizzie confronts Mamah and calls her on her selfishness comes at a key moment in the novel. We as readers had been following Mamah's personal, inner wranglings for a hundred pages or so, across the ocean in Europe without the physical presence of her family. When Lizzie lets Mamah know of all she has been put through, while Mamah found herself, we readers are also shaken back into the reality of the situation.
There is much more we discussed including the title, Frank's "Life is Truth" motto at his Oak Park Home and Studio, and the Goethe epigraph Horan chose for the novel, "One lives but once in the world.," but there is only so much I can expect people to read about.
Moving onto other books...there are many nonfiction books about Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin, and his relationship with Mamah. To get you started on more information, Brookbrowse has compiled this further reading list at the end of their posted discussion questions for Loving Frank. However, to this list I would also like to add the upcoming (9/08) Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William R. Drennan. Nancy Horan has given a blurb on the book.
In terms of fiction readalike suggestions, I would like to move away from the Frank Lloyd Wright subject and suggest 3 other historical fiction titles about independent women. Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell is a good suggestion because it not only follows the early years of Mozart's career, but it also chronicles his relationship with the four Weber sisters. Booklist notes that it is "as much about the four Weber sisters as it is about Mozart." (1/1/04). Another historic novel about an artist and his interesting wife is Other Sorrows, Other Joys: the Marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher and William Blake by Janet Warner. Here, like in Loving Frank, a young woman searches for her own identity in the shadow of a genius partner. Finally, there is Away by Amy Bloom. Here the focus is not on an artist, but rather on an independent woman's search for her daughter. However, unlike Loving Frank, despite the hardship, our main character has a happy ending. You can read a longer comment by me on Away right here.
Next month we will be reading Erik Larson's Thunderstruck.