"It's not good to live so much inside oneself. It's a self-imposed exile, " says Martha "Mamah" Borthwick-Cheney (1869-1914), the main protagonist of Nancy Horan's beautifully rendered Loving Frank. The irony is that for throughout most of her life, Mamah did indeed lead a life of exile because of her scandalous affair with Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
Frank first meets Mamah Borthwick in 1907 when Mamah's husband, Edwin, commissions the architect to design their home in Oak Park, Illinois. For a period after they built the house, Edwin and Mamah socialize with Frank and his wife, Catherine, perhaps once a month, and Frank's reputation grows considerably
from those early days when they first consult with him.
During construction, Mamah and Frank lose themselves time and again in deep discussion, Frank igniting her mind like no other person she's
ever met. At first they talk about ideas and about the great philosophers, gradually beginning to see each other as intellectual kindred spirits and "fellow outsiders." But when Mamah finds herself saving up insights to tell Frank, thoughts she never would have shared with Edwin, she realizes that she's just grown too close to this famous architect.
The shy and diffident Edwin promised on their wedding day to be Mamah's anchor, but he also threatened her with the comment, "take my love for granted, and I shall do the same for you." It is these words alone that end up tumbling Mamah into a tailspin of emotion, which in turn becomes
a recipe for disaster as Mamah becomes ever more entranced with her knight in shining armor.
For Mamah, Frank represents a break from the mediocrity of her marriage to Edwin. With "his black cape whipping like a sail then his wide-brimmed hat", Frank rides about town in his car,
called the "yellow devil" called for his devil-may-care attitude about gossip.
He sees in Mamah a beautiful and articulate woman who "comprehended," who keeps him sharp and is quick with repartee.
This is a summer of breathtaking risks for Frank and Mamah, and for every careful plan there is a careless visit. Meeting for secretive trysts in
downtown Chicago at Frank's new office, it frightens her to feel so out of control as he steadily becomes her life force, filling whatever space he occupies with a pulsing energy that is spiritual and intellectual all at once.
When they finally take the chance and elope to Europe, abandoning their respective families, they find themselves caught in an emotional freefall, ultimately exiled in foreign lands. He fanatically wants to find inspiration for his work, while she is certain that she can only have the happiest life imaginable if she stays with the one man she loves more than any other she has ever known.
Mamah certainly doesn't look back with regret at what she and Frank have done together as it was the truest love she
has known with a man, but she is all too aware of the limits society of the time presses on women. It is here in Europe, far from America's puritanical judgment, where she is forced to confront the fallout of the choices she has made in the form of a divorce from Edwin, the betrayal of her children, and the fact that now, in the eyes of the press, she
is a "marked woman" and a "humiliated harlot."
In this uniquely feminist novel, Horan depicts Mamah's incompatible desires for love and motherhood in a society where adultery is frowned upon and where intimacies with the opposite sex are fraught with difficulties. Considering these restrictions, Frank and Mamah's sojourn is certainly not the spiritual adventure that Frank had once conjured up, nor
is it what Mamah had imagined when she boarded the train from Oak Park to New York City.
The journey that Mamah and Frank take on behalf of true love becomes an emotional adventure that is both wise and fearless.
As they travel from Berlin to Paris and then onto Florence, both have the sense to realize that there's no turning back as the press begin to hound them for a story. Ironically, though, it is only when Mamah meets renowned Swedish feminist philosopher Ellen Key that she finds a mixture of wisdom and empathy.
From the bohemians Mamah meets while living in Berlin< who talk fervently of politics, war, and socialism, to the beauty of Frank's Taliesin studio beneath the rolling, unglaciated hills in
southwestern Wisconsin, where they hope they won't have to live these fragmented lives anymore, Loving Frank is a novel that speaks the language of love.
Frank and Mamah are unquestionably victims of their time, he romanticized things and loved imbuing life with a little drama, while she sees clear what she's lost in giving up her right to keep her place as her children's most beloved. But in the end, these are undoubtedly two brave, resolute people who tried to live out their lives in a world where no obstacle was too great in their quest for romantic and spiritual fulfillment.