Friday, December 28, 2012

Historical Fiction: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is a historical fiction novel about the love affair between Martha "Mamah" Borthwick and the famous Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 20th century. The life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright is not something I am all that familiar with, but I was curious to get even a brief glimpse or snapshot into his life and maybe even how he worked.

The Situation: Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright met when Frank was designing her future home in the now famous Oak Park in Chicago. Frank had already designed a few of the houses in the area and would go on to design a few more. His artistry and genius were already well known before he and Mamah meet. And after realizing their attraction for one another, Frank and Mamah would take off on a tour of Europe before finally settling in Wisconsin. While Frank seems to be constantly thinking, designing, and building, Mamah indulges her own interests of writing and translating. She even takes classes while in Europe to learn Swedish so she can better translate for a well-known feminist writer. Frank and Mamah are undeniably in love with each other and are determined to attempt to build a life together.

The Problem: Both Frank and Mamah have already built separate lives with two other people that they are still married to, even after they take off to Europe together. The scandal makes front page Chicago news almost immediately, and no matter where the couple runs off to, the story follows them everywhere, as do the reporters. And while Frank and Mamah attempt to hide out everywhere but Chicago, the family that they have left behind, including their children, and Mamah's quiet, grounded, and somewhat guarded sister Lizzie, are left to deal with the scandal on their own. Mamah's two young children are left wondering where their mother is, and Frank's six children are left without their father. And while both Frank's wife and Mamah's husband are refusing to grant divorces, the scandalous couple are coming to the realization that what they abandoned their families for may not be what they thought it was. They each feel they have a right and claim to the true "free love," but what are they willing to sacrifice in order to have it?

Genre, Themes, History: As I already mentioned, Loving Frank is historical fiction. Frank Lloyd Wright really did have a love affair with Mamah Borthwick in the early 20th century, and while a lot of what Horan put down on paper is fiction, she does follow the major events of the couple's life, as well as their travels and their work. Even a few of the letters included in the novel come from real correspondence. And Horan claims that the newspaper articles included in the novel came from real articles that were published at the time. Themes include women's rights, family obligations, and the right to happiness. Even in Chicago, before she runs off with Frank, Mamah was heavily involved in women's rights and getting women the right to vote. While in Europe, she meets up with a well-known feminist writer and agrees to translate her works for her, even though there are some parts of her beliefs that she does not agree with. Also, all throughout the book Mamah struggles with her desire to be happy and be able to love who she wants, and the fact that she has basically abandoned her children in order to enjoy that right. It is a constant struggle, and it is one that Mamah has to constantly re-evaluate and reasses as she tries to make this new life work with Frank.

My Verdict: If Horan's goal was to make Mamah likable and relatable, then I am afraid she failed as far as I am concerned. It is a difficult thing to make someone who willingly abandons their children into a likable heroine, and I feel like Horan fell short. According to Horan's version of the story, Mamah does feel terrible about leaving her children behind while pursuing her relationship with Frank, and she constantly struggles with her decision and her desire to still be around her children. However, no matter how much she misses them and how bad she feels, she still refuses to return to Chicago, even though that is the only way she could be around them the majority of the time. Instead she hopes she can get more custody than her husband is ever willing to give, and she therefore ends up missing out on more and more of her children's lives. Instead of sacrificing so she can be with them, she decides the only way she can be with them is if she is able to keep the life she has been living at the same time. In other words, she is sorry her decision has taken her away from them, but not sorry enough to really do much about it. And even with all of Mamah's arguments about women deserving to be happy, even if that means they have to leave their husbands to do it, I just couldn't be on her side. And I couldn't relate to Frank either as he leaves his own wife and six kids, and is portrayed as a pompous genius who feels like people should feel privileged to have him work for them. Horan presented two main characters that I really didn't like, and that just ruined most of the book for me.

Favorite Moment: When Mamah realizes that the real Frank is very different from the man she left her family for. He is arrogant, selfish, self-serving, and cannot manage his money. It was basically the moment I had been waiting for during the entire book.

Favorite Character: I honestly didn't care for any of them. Frank and Mamah are at the forefront of the entire story and I was basically just waiting for their downfall. I did appreciate Mamah's sister Lizzie, who told Mamah upfront about how her decisions have affected all of them, and was probably the one who was able to get through to her sister the most.

Recommended Reading: If you're into historical fiction and like stories that also talk about the women's movement and women's freedoms in the early 20th century, then I would recommend Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone. I liked it much more than I did Loving Frank, as the characters are more relatable and the story is about more than just one couple.

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