Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, you cannot help but know who Frank Lloyd Wright is; in fact there was a Wright home in our town (Geneva) and the Oak Park prairie houses were of course world renowned. However, aside from that, I personally never knew any other details about his life - that is, until Mom lent me this book.
Nancy Horan spent 7 years researching her incredible novel (it is fiction historically based in fact) which details the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his Oak Park clients, Mamah Cheney. They first meet in 1907 when Mamah and her husband commission a home from Wright, and sparks fly. It does not take long before Mamah and Frank are secretly meeting each other. Mamah had long felt stifled in her marriage and Frank offered her the intellectual and spiritual relationship she had missed, along with a powerful physical attraction. A mother of two children, Mamah struggled with the implications that leaving her husband would have on them and on herself. In those days it was not obvious for a woman to walk away from a marriage and come out unscathed on the other side. But Frank, himself a father of six with a wife who refused to grant him a divorce, was compelling, and convinced her to move to Europe with him while he worked there.
Of course, it must be said, Mamah had a ideal situation which enabled her to escape real life - her unmarried sister and a devoted nanny both lived in with the family, and were able to step in and take over her duties as a mother and running the household. At times I found Mamah to be, in fact, rather selfishly self absorbed, in the way she deserted her children and simply accepted that others pick up the slack. This did have a consequence for her later, most poignantly in her later, strained relationship with her sister.
Mamah was a talented writer and translator and became involved with the early feminist movement, as the American translator for the Swedish feminist Ellen Keys. It was vitally important to her to have her own work, her own contribution to the world, and admirably, she did make this a priority in her life, spending time alone studying, even leaving Frank for a time in order to pursue her goals.
After spending time in Europe and Japan, she and Frank finally settled down in the home he was building for them in Wisconsin. At the outset, the couple was beleaguered by the press - their relationship was one of the biggest scandals Chicago society had known at that time and the newspapers smelled blood. But finally things died down and Mamah was able to make a real home for herself, finally spend time with her children, continute her literary work, and make plans for the future. The feeling that things in Mamah's life were at last getting on track and there seemed to be hope for a happy life, makes the dramatic ending all the more shocking, and truly sad.
This book is admirable in the imagination it must have taken to piece together the factual puzzle and fill in the blanks with educated guesses about how Mamah would have felt or behaved. Whether or not you sympathise with Mamah and agree or disagree with the life decisions she made, you cannot help but admire her as a powerful, daring person who never gave up trying to live her ideals.
23 hours ago