Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

Another book club read, Loving Frank is a fictionalised account of the scandalous love affair of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, a housewife and mother who abandons her family to run off with the famous architect.

We follow Mamah, already in love with Frank as the story opens, having gotten to know him when he was building a home for her and her husband, Edwin. The timing in the first few chapters is a bit confusing because one flashback is not resolved into the “present” of the story before we are thrust into another flashback and then another. Even after reading it twice, I cannot pin down the chronology of events. The pair become lovers, and eventually Mamah takes the children and goes to stay with her friend, Mattie, who is about to deliver her first child. Mamah hopes that the time away from both Edwin and Frank will help her decide what to do.

It is a first novel, so perhaps much can be forgiven. The dialogue can be clunky, particularly when it is used to convey undigested lumps of back story. Also, at times the language is a bit florid, like something out of a romance novel, though I admit that finding a fresh way to describe being in love is dreadfully hard.

My biggest problem with the book, however, is that the characters do not come alive for me. Curiously, some of the minor characters seem most real, such as Mamah’s unmarried sister, Lizzie, who chastises Mamah at the end of the book for leaving her to raise Mamah’s children, effectively precluding any chance she might have had for living her own life. What this says to me is that Horan is adept at characterisation when freed from factual constraints.

Mamah does begin to emerge as a more rounded character in the middle section of the book, when she is in Italy with Frank and later in Germany by herself. I especially enjoyed the section in Germany when Mamah meets a circle of avant-garde artists. She learns Swedish and begins translating into English the work of Ellen Key, a leader in the Woman Movement. I recognise that it is difficult to portray a feminist, even one from this first wave, without sliding over into stereotypes. Perhaps if I were new to feminism and had not spent decades working out my own answers to these questions about women’s roles, I might have found Mamah’s soul-searching more interesting and felt more sympathy for her struggles.

Frank himself never becomes a real person. Granted, I tend to dislike novels that use real people as characters. One reason is that it seems to me unethical to make up stories—this is fiction, after all—about someone who is not alive to defend himself. The second reason, which also applies to novels using someone else’s characters (e.g., the recent plethora of books starring Sherlock Holmes), is that it seems to me that the author is taking a shortcut, assuming that the reader already knows the character, so the author doesn’t have to bother describing him or her. Finally, although I know it is done all the time, it doesn't seem to me quite fair for an author to trade on someone else’s celebrity, at least without the person's consent. I doubt this book would ever have been published if it had not featured Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s simply not good enough to stand on its own merits.

However, I believe it could have been with just one more revision cycle. While obviously my experiences and biases color my opinion of this book, most of the problems I have with it result from typical hazards that entrap novice fiction writers—using dialogue as narrative, confused plot sequencing, inadequate characterisation—crimes we’ve all been guilty of; well, I have certainly. Another revision could have fixed these problems. I also think that in writing this book Horan set herself some very difficult challenges, ones that would test even an experienced novelist.

Perhaps my expectations were raised too high by the rave reviews and the “New York Times Bestseller” banner splashed across its cover. Certainly some members of my book club found it absorbing. There is much promise here, and I look forward to Horan’s next book.

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