Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the protagonist of Nancy Horan’s arresting debut novel, Loving Frank, faces the crossroads of her life in Boulder in 1909. In Horan’s novel, which weaves imagined conversations and scenes into a framework of historical fact, Mamah has fallen in love with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Oak Park, Ill. home she shared with her husband and two children. She takes a train to Boulder to support her best friend through a difficult pregnancy, having just confessed the affair to her husband.
Mamah, a highly-educated, multilingual feminist, had suffered a depression after the birth of her second child, the cause of which is evident from the Charlotte Perkins Gilman quotation she copied in her diary: “It is not sufficient to be a mother: an oyster can be a mother.” Having found her life’s passion and renewed mental vigor in the company of her intellectual equal, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mamah’s old spirit has returned again, producing a feeling of “sparks flicking like fireflies under her skin.”
But Wright’s wife Catherine, the mother of his six children, has refused to grant him a divorce, and Mamah’s husband vows to keep the children if she leaves him. Wright wants her to come to live in Germany with him while he completes a project, and during her summer in Boulder, Mamah mulls her options. Horan vividly evokes the atmosphere of Boulder in 1909 as she does all of the many other far-flung settings that the book, and Mamah’s life, takes her to. Boulder at this time is full of miners and “tuberculars” who have come to high altitude to cure their condition, and Mamah considers applying for the position as head of the German language and literature department at CU that Mary Rippon has just vacated. Although she finds no sympathy for her actions from her best friend or from the live-in sister she has left behind in Oak Park, Mamah listens to her heart, telegrams her husband to come collect their children in Boulder, and journeys to Europe to live with Wright.
The press soon discovers this whirlwind “elopement,” and reporters hound the couple as soon as they can locate them at their Berlin hotel. Wright’s job opportunities flounder because of the scandal, but it’s Mamah who bears the brunt of societal disapproval. The newspaper articles that Horan reproduces depict Mamah as a “vampire” who destroyed the Wright’s family and abandoned her own children. Although she is sorely stung by her depiction in articles sent from home and misses her children, Mamah blossoms in Europe, finding her calling as the translator for the Swedish feminist Ellen Key, who believes, as Mamah tells Wright, “once love leaves a marriage, then the marriage isn’t sacred anymore. But if a true, great love happens outside of marriage, its sacred and has its own rights.”
Although Mamah feels safer and less judged in Europe, Wright persuades her to move with him to his family’s land in Wisconsin, where he sets about building the famous homestead Taliesen, and Mamah helps feed and organize the work crew. Ironically, she must do more women’s traditional chores at Taliesin than she did at home with her husband. Reporters still dog the couple, but they achieve a sort of stable normalcy, with regular visits from Mamah’s children, by the time Mamah meets her shocking fate, the inexplicable one dealt her in real life.
Loving Frank is an artful, engrossing novel, written in smooth, fluid prose that transports the reader to every new location it explores, from Chicago to Boulder to Germany to France to Italy to Wisconsin. Mamah and Wright’s conversations about love, art, architecture and morality are natural and absorbing, making the reader wish it were possible to participate in the discussion. Horan’s Mamah Borthwick Cheney, vilified in her own lifetime as the “other woman,” becomes a vivid, sympathetic character. She was perhaps born too early, before most women of her intelligence and drive were able to choose the course of their lives freely, and Horan’s imagining of her inner life is a fine tribute to a woman who went to her grave little understood, almost a hundred years ago.
Nancy Horan will discuss Loving Frank at the Boulder Book Store on July 31 at 7:30 p.m.