Loving Frank

Friday, June 05, 2009

A scandalous love affair that stems from an attraction of the mind between a married man and woman, in an era where the woman's movement was broiling into national arena, Loving Frank, is the latest book about famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his love affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. (Note: Mamah is pronounced "May-muh")

Our book club selected this book, at the recommendation of Dorothy Ann. So here is my review of this historical fiction.

An aficionado of non-fiction but also a good love story whether it's fact or fiction. Loving Frank is both which is also frustrating for me at the same time. The houses he designed, the love affair, and the tragic ending are all factual. However, the author theorizes about the character's interaction and personalities and I'm always left wondering, "was she really like that?".

Growing up in the 197o's and 80's I had heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. His designs were considered "modern" for their minimalist, organic characteristics. As a child, I thought he was an architect of recent period. Until I read this book, I had no idea Frank Lloyd Wright lived in the early 1900's. Once I learned this fact and read about the designs, I was amazed and have to agree he was a genius.

The book does an excellent job in describing the houses he designed and therefore revealing Wright's light-years-ahead thinking and vision. A non-architect, one can appreciate the inspiration and thought process.

Mr. Wright is way ahead of other architects. People just think 'prairie house' when they hear his name. But he's so much more than that. If you listen to what he says about organic architecture, you can go build natural houses anywhere in the world. People don't understand that now, but they will someday. What I'm trying to say is, he's a prophet. He's going to change the way architecture is praticed. Period. [from his loyal apprentice Taylor].

The author and journalist, Nancy Horan, craftfully portrays the professional and personal life of the most famous US architect, Frank Lloyd Wright; the influence of a married but highly educated, like-minded, forward-thinking woman who struggles to break the glass mold of traditional mother bound to house and children; and how society both hounded the couple in a media circus and ostracized them from everyday mundane affairs.

In the beginning of the book, after leaving their spouses, the pair flees to Europe, finding delight in a less-disapproving continental society, as well as an outlet for their cultural pursuits. Mamah, the independent spirit, refuses to tag along and drown in boring business conversations and taps into her talent as a polyglot to translate works of Swedish feminist Ellen Key.

'She says that once love leaves a marriage, then the marriage isn't sacred anymore. But if a true, great love happens outside of a marriage, it's sacred and has its own rights. She says each fresh couple must must prove that their love enhances their lives and the human race by living together.' Frank was slicing the bread. 'You mean we're doing this for the human race?'

Mamah, a mother of two children, was in constant conflict with her decision to leave her children behind. There were moments of reprieve and she clung to them "for the greater good".

In approaching Paris by train to meet up with Frank and surveying the damage by a torrential flood, Ellen realizes her worries are minimal compared to the miseries of the desperate Parisians.

Alarm rippled through the train as passengers moved about to get better views. But the calm that had possessed Mamay in Nancy persisted...She felt clarity, even more than before, as if she were viewing everything, even herself, from a distance. How small we human are. All our srambling around, trying to buttress ourselves against death. All our efforts to insulate ourselves against uncertainty with codes of behavior.

How ridiculous it all seemed, when life itself was so short, so precious. To live dishonestly seemed a cowardly way to use up one's time. For all the troubles life had meted out to her, she thought, it had given her more extraordinary gifts, Martha and John were that [her children]. And then, quite by chance, and in the wrong order, life had bestowed on her another kind of love that was both erotic and nourishing. To embrace Frank, to accept the gift, seemed to be an affirmation of life.

How to reconcile the deepest loves of her soul? She tried to imagine a time in the future when she would explain to her children this understanding. They would have to be adults to comprehend it. But she believed they would see that her choice to leave their father was not meant as a cruel self-indulgence geared to make them unhappy. Rather, it was an act of love for life.

So who was this man that raptured Mamah's heart and uprooted her life, leaving a comfortable lifestyle (an old maid sister who took over the rearing of her children, a nanny, and housekeeper) and adoring husband for a life on the run?

Wright is a brilliant architect but also erractic. He was lauded and vilified in equal amounts. Horan's extensive research provides substantial underpinnings for this engrossing novel, and the focus on Mamah lets readers see her attraction to the creative, flamboyant architect but also her recognition of his arrogance. Ironically, he is demanding of his employees and vendors yet at the same time he is grossly irresponsible as a businessman failing to pay his loyal employees for up to a two year period and mounting debts for his luxuries to maintain an image. When his faithful lover, Mamah, discovers the latter, she denounces him as a liar and fraud and leaves him. In shock, Wright genuinely makes an effort to undo the damning damage. The reconciliation and glimpse of a happily-ever-after turns suddenly tragic.

Despite the tragic ending, the book is well written in a natural, lyrical prose. This book is thought provoking and offers plenty discussion for a book club! The values of marriage and fidelity vs. true happiness, the feminist movement, the pressures and consequences of media intrusion on the personal lives of famous people.

Do you think Mamah was selfish or courageous in her quest for expression of self, and true happiness in the long run? Share your comments below!

Home and Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois

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