I had originally intended this post to go up on the 8th March, which was International Women’s Day, making this excellent fictionalised account of a real woman’s life particularly appropriate. But things don’t always go according to plan. It might be a few days late, but this is still a book worth recommending.
Horan’s Loving Frank tells the story of Mamah Borthwick:
“My name is Mamah Borthwick. Mamah is a nickname for Martha, and is pronounced ‘May-muh’. It’s a name that puzzles when first encountered…
My parents did not pluck Mamah out of the bible, nor did they name me after a beloved aunt. I’m the only Mamah I have ever heard of. I wish there were a great heroine from history who inspired the choice, but there isn’t. It is simply a loving sobriquet bestowed by my grandmother.
There may be a handful of readers for whom the name will prompt a memory, though. It’s possible that they will recall reading the scandalous headlines about a woman named Mamah whose affair with a married man was the stuff that ‘news’ editors dream of. I am that woman…”
Those headlines were real and the affair that Mamah references is the one that she had with renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright from 1907 to 1914. But it was more than an affair. It was the beginning of a life-altering journey for Mamah, Frank and their two families.
At the beginning of the book, Mamah is living in the house in which she grew up in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, with her husband Edwin Cheney and two young children, John and Martha. Also living in their home are her sister Lizzie, her niece Jessie (daughter of her sister Jessica who had died in childbirth in 1901) and Louise, their children’s nurse. In 1904, Edwin Cheney hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design his new family home and the day-to-day consultation as the work progressed swiftly fell to Mamah. While the story doesn’t dwell on their first meeting, the enormity of the impression the two made on each other is clear. And in the opening chapter we see Mamah rushing to catch a 1907 speech of Wright’s at the Nineteenth Century Women’s Club, after which their affair begins in earnest.
Eventually, Mamah and Frank’s love for each other caused them to leave their families and flee together to Europe, where Frank was planning to work on a collection of folio drawings for a German publisher. In doing so, they both left their children behind, Mamah in the knowledge that she may never be able to live with them permanently again. It’s easy to be critical of a woman who would abandon her children in this way but that would be to oversimplify. Mamah’s decision to leave is much bigger than her affair with Wright; there are echoes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in her confusion and determination.
The title Loving Frank tells only half the story. While she is literally in love with another man, the book also focuses on Mamah’s relationship with herself, her desire for personal fulfilment and the often painful process of confronting her own truths. By allowing herself to love Frank, and to pursue a passion that was intellectually and emotionally liberating, she opened doors in her own life that took great courage to walk through. It’s a very honest account of the pursuit of personal growth, reminding us that it’s not always possible to have everything.
Mamah’s choices bring her a degree of intellectual freedom, in that she can pursue her own work with the full support of Wright. She acts for some time as the American translator of Ellen Keys – a Swedish feminist writer who published works on family life, ethics and education – as well as working to translate poetry including Goethe’s Hymn to Nature. Pursuing her work takes her away from Frank for long periods. She lived alone in Berlin for a time, during which she studied Swedish, became a part of the cultural scene that included the poetess Else Laske-Schuler, and made extra money acting as a translator for poor, factory workers who were hoping to reach American relatives.
But Mamah’s complex relationships with the women who help to inspire her to pursue her goals also remind her in many ways of what she has left behind. Her grief at the loss of her children is constant and even the forward-thinking Keys can’t quite bring herself to advocate that a mother should do what Mamah did. In addition, she is swiftly transformed into the Chicago Press’ favourite ‘media devil’ and her reputation back home is destroyed forever. As well as her own pain, she must face the pain she caused to those she left behind whose quiet, blameless lives are turned over by reporters at every opportunity.
Mamah’s choices do not always make her happy but they do make her strong:
“Before Mamah came over to Germany, Mattie had said to her, ‘What will you do if Frank returns to his wife? You’ll have nothing.’ But Mamah felt now that if that came to be, she had more than nothing. She had whatever it was inside herself that made her survive. The past few months had boiled her down to her very essence. All the rest, it seemed, had just floated away.”
Horan’s portrayal of Mamah, and the relationship she builds with Wright with all its highs, lows and alternative perspectives, is honest and true to life. Mamah suffers the kind of emotional tumult that results from unintentionally hurting those you love: there’s no gloss or idealisation. She’s unbearably human in her emotional core, as well as in the mistakes she makes. She is brave and yet wracked with doubts: a woman who made great sacrifices in her pursuit of an authentic life and was cruelly punished for her decisions at a time when women were not awarded many of the freedoms of today. You won’t easily forget her.
Horan’s words also help us to see the world in the unique way that Mamah and Wright do, whether that’s through her expansive descriptions of Wisconsin, in which we see the roots of Wright’s inspiration, or in the Bohemian confines of a Berlin cafe where her careful observations of the customers mark the point at which Mamah discovers her first spiritual ‘home’.
I won’t say anything about the ending, which I found brutal and shocking. (If this wasn’t based on real events, I’d have questioned the cruelty of the author…!) But I can say that Horan has done the most wonderful job bringing this complex woman to the page with sensitivity, sincerity and a depth of feeling.