I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.
Mamah Borthwick Cheney wrote these words in her diary, explaining her feelings about her clandestine love affair with American architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years prior, in 1903, Mamah and her husband Edwin had commissioned Wright to build a home for them and their two children in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. A powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Wright, one based on philosophical ideas and utopian sized dreams for an intellectual future as much as on physical desire. By the time the home was built, they were deeply in love, and each left their families behind in order to fulfill their love for one another. The relationship they embarked upon rocked their families and the society in which they lived. In Loving Frank, novelist Nancy Horan masterfully blends fact and fiction as she explores this love affair. She also creates a portrait of Mamah Borthwick, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, who was determined to live an “honest, authentic life,” one in which she followed the instincts of her heart and not the expectations of society.
I was a bit torn while reading this book. Years ago, back in the day when I was a young wife and mother, I would have been most sympathetic to Mamah’s yearnings for self fulfillment, her need for a creative outlet all her own, her feeling of being subsumed in her family and their needs. But I admit to a bit of impatience with her – yes, perhaps even anger -for the manner in which she left her children behind physically and emotionally in her quest to create a life of her own. Perhaps it’s because I now see so clearly how short the period of motherhood really is, and while it can seem interminable at the time you’re living it, in reality it’s an eyeblink in the course of a lifetime.
Don’t misunderstand – I believe it’s vital for women to have their own interests and concerns beyond the boundaries of family life. But I wonder if Mamah could have found a better balance between family life and the “fully realized” life she sought without leaving her children behind. Of course, the world was very different for women in 1910 than it is today, the opportunities far fewer, the expectations much more defined. And yet I think we still struggle with the same issues, albeit in different ways. How do we find that middle point where we can fulfill the needs of our children without completely losing our own way?
Then there is the question of genius, which Horan raises in an interesting way. Wright considers himself a creative genius, and as such, feels he is entitled to live outside the box of rules and expectations defined for the mere mortal among us. Mamah could certainly be considered a genius in her own right with her exceptional gifts in language. Do those with exceptional talent have a need – a right even – to live life differently than the majority of us?
All told, this was a wonderful novel. I loved reading it, loved the way Horan used fiction to illuminate fact. While the novel was obviously meticulously researched, it never seemed like a treatise, but only a perfectly told story about two people and the choices they made in order to live their best life.