By Nancy Horan
Ballantine. 362 pp. $23.95
Good ideas for novels sometimes spring nearly fully formed from life. Such is the case with Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, which details Frank Lloyd Wright's passionate affair with a woman named Mamah Cheney; both of them left their family to be together, creating a Chicago scandal that eventually ended in inexplicable violence.
It's easy to see why Horan, a former journalist and resident of Oak Park, Ill. -- where Wright was first hired to design a house for Cheney and her husband and which is home to the largest collection of Wright architecture -- found this an excellent subject. Not only are the characters memorable, the buildings are, too.
Of course, like all writers of historical fiction, Horan is pinned to the whims and limits of history, which by nature can create a "story" that might easily take undramatic paths or turns. But Horan doesn't seem unduly constrained by the parameters of hard fact, and for long stretches her novel is engaging and exciting. Wright comes across as ardent, visionary and erratic, while Mamah (pronounced May-mah) is a complex person with modern ideas about women's roles in the world. In her diary, Mamah writes out a quote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman: "It is not sufficient to be a mother: an oyster can be a mother."
While it might have been hard even for an oyster to be a mother while conducting a love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright, Mamah eventually sees no way to be with him but to abandon her children:
"Mamah spoke slowly. 'Now, listen carefully. I'm going to leave tomorrow to go on a trip to Europe. You will stay here with the Browns until Papa arrives in a couple of days. I'm going on a small vacation.'
"John burst into tears. 'I thought we were on one.'
"Mamah's heart sank. 'One just for me,' she said, struggling to stay calm. . . . Mamah lay down on the bed and pulled their small curled bodies toward her, listening as John's weeping gave way to a soft snore."
Horan takes pains to convey her protagonist's maternal guilt and ambivalence, but she also has the children haunt the story like inconvenient, pathetic ghosts.