I’ve got politics on the brain these days and a large translation contract this week so I haven’t had as much time as I would usually have for keeping up with my reading projects. But never fear – I do manage to squeeze in a few hours here and there!
Last night my Swiss bookgroup met for a really involved discussion of Nancy Horan’s novel Loving Frank. I suppose I should admit right away that I did not love Loving Frank, but I didn’t dislike it either. What I did love was our discussion – so many questions, so many different opinions. Loving Frank is the retelling of an affair the architect Frank Lloyd Wright had with a woman named Mamah Borthwick at the turn of the century. The story is told from Mamah’s perspective and deals mostly with what happened to her personally, and intellectually, as the result of falling in love with someone other than her husband – and a famous someone to boot.
The book deals with the reality and consequences of infidelity and this is what fueled most of our discussion – especially because the story took place at a time when Mamah had little options for getting a divorce without ruining her own life as well as the lives of her children. Although I think most of us in the room enjoyed reading about Mamah’s struggle to assert her own intellectual and emotional identity, we all had a hard time understanding her willingness to abandon her children for a life with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Our discussion went round and round but we ended up going back to one fundamental question – does motherhood trump everything else? Even selfhood? (I’d like to pose that question using the word parenthood, but Horan’s book is focused specifically on Mamah, and I think it’s also fair to say that men are unfortunately not held to same standards when it comes to involvement in their children’s lives.) The answer to that question is obviously entirely personal but it’s a hard one for me to sort through. Horan portrays Mamah’s husband as a kind, generous man who loved her. But he wasn’t an intellectual match for her and she was slowly suffocating in the life they lived. She had two children and she loved her children. Along came Frank Lloyd Wright (married with six children of his own) and her entire world turned upside down.
So is there a way to correct an error like that? Should Mamah have been punished for the rest of her life for choosing the wrong man? There is an interesting moment in the book when Wright receives a letter from his minister, urging him to return to his wife and children with the implication that it would be all right to keep Mamah as his mistress. And at least in the beginning of their affair, Mamah’s husband is willing to forgive her if she would only decide to come back. Is that the solution? Should she have stayed with her husband, continued some charade of a family unit and kept up her passionate affair with Wright on the side? Would that have been better for her children? Horan creates a Mamah who couldn’t do that – who wanted all or nothing but who ended up with all and nothing.
The ending of the book comes as a horrible surprise and if anyone knows the true story of what happened to Mamah Borthwick, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Real life doesn’t ever follow a neatly packaged narrative and so the book is forced to strike out into territory that doesn’t have much to do with its central question. I couldn’t help being somewhat disappointed by that, even if I realize Horan was just trying to stay true to the facts. It’s just the book was written very much like a novel, so that sudden derailing seemed to significantly undermine what I felt was the heart of the story.