Welcome to this month’s book club discussion! We will be discussing Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. I’ll start by giving you my reflections on the book, then I’ve provided discussion questions below for everyone to ponder. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
(Also, look for the announcement of June’s book later today…)
Loving Frank chronicles the lives of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, his client-turned-lover, as they struggle to endure the hardship their love brings upon them. The story follows the pair as their love blossoms at home in Chicago, then as they travel through Europe, eventually settling in Wisconsin at the now-enshrined Taliesin complex.
A lush, romantic historical novel with a backdrop painted by Frank’s artistic genius, Horan really captured the essence of the man we now revere and his lesser-known mistress. But both Frank and Mamah were well ahead of their time. Frank’s one-with-nature approach to architecture was radical at the turn of the 20th century, with clean lines and sweeping, evocative views.
But the focus of the novel is really on our narrator, Mamah. We are introduced to her as an under-stimulated housewife whose passion and intelligence ignite upon meeting Frank. It’s not until Mamah discovers the work of Ellen Key, however, that her character really blossoms. It is her relationship with Key and reflections on her own life choices that expose a woman deeply conflicted and at the same time emboldened by her own explorations and relationships. Most of the book examines this conflict and how it plays out in the relationship between Mamah and Frank in a very relatable way. As Else, the scenester Mamah befriends in Berlin, says, “We all have our little battles going on inside.”
Yet what struck me most was the damning power of gossip and the media as portrayed by the book. It’s easy to draw parallels to our twenty-first century world, laden with paparazzi and where the internet gives anyone with a laptop a shroud of anonymity to voice their opinions. Mamah and Frank are haunted and quite literally chased around the world by hungry reporters, eager to sell their stories. Mamah has a nervous breakdown upon reading that her children have been questioned; Frank’s commissions dry up amidst news of a scandal.
While society vilifies and shuns them, we are given a more intimate view of their lives and come to understand just how complex these characters are. Mamah and Frank make hard choices in pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness despite the inevitable consequences. Both of them struggle tremendously with guilt, shame, and frustration. The author delicately juxtaposes their struggle with impossible circumstances and the joy of a deep romance.
In the end, it seems this book is largely about appreciating the short time we have on this Earth. One of my favorite passages from the book was as Mamah first began working with Key:
“How small we humans are, she thought…. All our efforts to insulate ourselves against uncertainty with codes of behavior and meaningless busyness.”
Neither one of them could’ve guess how soon their affair would end, and under what circumstances (trying not to give any spoilers!). But the dramatic ending to this book serves as a reminder that we don’t know what our lives will bring, and we should make every effort to live each moment to the fullest.
I want to hear your thoughts on this book! Here are a few discussion questions – please share your comments below.
- Did you like the way the author portrayed these characters? Could you identify with them?
- Did you find Frank and Mamah’s choices brave, selfish, reckless (or something else entirely)?
- Do you think the media and public’s reaction to this relationship would be different if it happened today?
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