It’s hard to be sympathetic towards the main character of this novel, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the lover of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (Apart from this unpronounceable name, Mamah, which sticks skew in your head every time you read it.)
Looking at this, as with any historical novel, you have to consider the balance of historical, realistic accuracy (in the events, characters, spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age) and invented history and fantasy – the novel’s development of a representative, organic artwork that captures the fractures, contradictions, and problems of a time period – the degree of literary license, if you will.
Often, while the level of historical accuracy in a novel is not high, but acceptable, the art of the writing makes it pleasing and engrossing to the reader. Otherwise, a novel might contain such huge historical inaccuracies, especially anachronisms, that it loses artistic integrity. However, this novel would seem to err on the side of accuracy – it is highly accurate, even with regard to the unpronounceable Mamah, since this love affair was extensively publicized in the press, and documented in diaries, but the element of reimagining or interpretation is so low that it is a bit mundane. Mamah Cheney was very much a product of her time – constrained by morals and a judgmental society, unable to act freely or show true passion or emotion. (Her and Wright’s biggest fear seemed to be that their affair would be exposed in the press.)
While the affair drags on for decades, the writer only occasionally describes it in such a way as to move the reader. The accuracy extends to the last pages – Cheney died in a gruesome murder in the beautiful house that Wright had built for them, Taliesin East, and since the reader knew this beforehand, even the murder scene was a bit underwhelming. While the characters of Cheney and Wright are not very engaging, the book does stimulate interest in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Horan deals with his legacy with respect and fidelity.
About the author
Nancy Horan is an American author of historical fiction. Horan was awarded the 2009 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction by the Society of American Historians for Loving Frank. A former resident of Oak Park, Illinois, Horan was a middle school English teacher, a freelance journalist, and worked in a public relations firm before moving to an island in Puget Sound, where she lives with her husband. Loving Frank remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for over a year. It has been translated into sixteen languages.