Reviewed Meg Wolitzer
Sunday, August 19, 2007
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.
The novel belongs to the feminist genre not only in its depiction of a woman's conflicting desires for love and motherhood and a central role in society, but also through its sophisticated -- and welcome -- focus on the topic of feminism itself. As Mamah says to a friend: "All the talk revolves around getting the vote. That should go without saying. There's so much more personal freedom to gain beyond that. Yet women are part of the problem. We plan dinner parties and make flowers out of crepe paper. Too many of us make small lives for ourselves.' "
Mamah wants a big life; for a while she is so captivated by the writings of Swedish writer and philosopher Ellen Key, a leader in what was then referred to as "the Woman Movement," that she becomes her translator. Mamah is as ardent about rights and freedoms as she is about her lover, to whom her thoughts always inevitably circle back:
" 'Frank has an immense soul. He's so . . .' She smiled to herself. 'He's incredibly gentle. Yet very manly and gallant. Some people think he's a colossal egoist, but he's brilliant, and he hates false modesty.' "
Together Mamah and Frank go off on their European jaunt, which includes appealing period details: "She would walk until her feet were screaming, then rest in cafés where artists buzzed about Modernism at the tables around her." Horan can be a very witty writer; at one point later in the book, she has Frank swatting flies with avidity, naming them before he kills them after critics who once gave him bad reviews: " 'Harriet Monroe!' Whack."
But she makes a couple of historically rooted narrative choices that are perplexingly on-the-nose. In a critical scene, Wright says, " 'I'd like to call it Taliesin, if it's all right with you. Do you know Richard Hovey's play Taliesin? About the Welsh bard who was part of King Arthur's court? He was a truth-seeker and a prophet, Taliesin was. His name meant 'shining brow.' I think it's quite appropriate.'
" 'Taliesin.' She tried the word in her mouth as she studied the house in the distance."
Historical novels sometimes bump right up against the problem of how to render moments that foreshadow events of great significance. In choosing to dwell on the naming of Taliesin, in this instance, Horan gives the moment a nudge and a self-conscious emphasis. It would have been subtler and more effective to refer to the naming of the house in passing, and instead to focus on another, more muted moment of intimacy involving the creation of Taliesin.
Loving Frank is a novel of impressive scope and ambition. Like her characters, Horan is going for something big and lasting here, and that is to be admired. In writing about tenderness between lovers or describing a physical setting, she uses prose that is is knowing and natural. At other times, she allows us a glimpse of the hand of fact guiding the hand of art, taking it places where it might not necessarily have chosen to go. ·
Meg Wolitzer's new novel, "The Ten-Year Nap," will be published next March.