Author: Nancy Horan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Abbreviated Summary (from the back flap): "...Mamah Borthwick Cheney... struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. ...In 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had comissioned the renowned architecht to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives."
Review: This book was selected for my January book club at my local library--one of the faithful members had previously read the book and really liked it, so we all agreed to put it on the list. Going into the book I only knew that it was Nancy Horan's literary debut (in fiction) and that it was based on a true event (not unlike this other book club selection).
So, armed with that tiny bit of information (and the summary from the back of the book), I start reading. Early on I underlined this wonderful bit of dialogue from Edwin Cheney (said to Mamah at their wedding reception), "'Take my love for granted,' he said, 'and I shall do the same for you.'" How sweet, right? I highlighted that portion and remember thinking that Edwin Cheney was such a wonderful man and wouldn't it be great to have that kind of love?
The problem is that Edwin didn't have that kind of love... well, he did, Mamah didn't. She and Frank Lloyd Wright (we'll just call him FLW because I'm lazy and this post might get a little long) were selfish jerk-offs who left behind a total of nine children to run off to Europe in search of "true love." There is a whole large middle section of the book where the well-educated Mamah (a woman with a master's degree wasn't commonplace in that day) meets Ellen Key, a philospher and writer who is fighting for the Woman's movement in Europe to promote the ideals of her "free love" philosophy. Key, according to Horan, theorizes that any love which isn't all-consuming and real isn't actually love and cheapens the marriage institution. However, some time later Key and Borthwick Cheney run into an odds about how this free love works itself out in marriages with children--Key strongly holds to the importance of motherhood and actually is working to get stay-at-home moms compensation for their domestic work.
Partway through the story I was getting a little wrapped up in how Edwin got the short end of the stick (according to Horan's somewhat fictionalized account he was unwaveringly faithful and patient), so I Googled him to see if he ever got re-married or anything. Check this out (I put that link so that those who don't want to be spoiled about what happens to the Cheney family, kids included, don't have to read it). Anyway, I read that, knew what was going to happen to Mamah and the kids, and still found myself weeping at one point in the novel.
I didn't like Mamah or Frank, I found them to be insufferably selfish, but here are some of things I wrote in the book as I was reading:
"At this point [page 345, after the climax alluded to in the above link] I have to stop, the sadness is immense. Regardless of the feelings one might have about how they got into this situation, the tragedy is startling. These were real people who were [spoiler censored]."The fact that kept hitting me as I read this, and was making judgements about whether I liked or disliked particular characters, was that these weren't just characters, they were real people. I wrote:
"I'm tempted to liken Mamah Borthwick Cheney to Rose Mary Walls [from The Glass Castle], two historical women who elevate their own hapiness as paramount, espousing the ideal that self-actualized individuals will foster a utopian society. What I find interesting is that Mamah actually seems to be most actualized when helping others (with her children, translating books and personal letters). I need to remember that these are both real women whose lives are told in second-hand accounts and curb the judgementalism."Anyhoodle, enough of my 50-cent words and personal feelings about the characters... on to the writing. Horan did a fantastic job, especially considering this was her first novel, in taking the scant information available and spinning it into a fully-developed story with rich characters, making them more than charicatures (which can so easily be done with realitively well-known historical figures). The only real flaw I saw in her writing is that after the afore-mentioned climax she switched to the POV of FLW and the present tense (all had previously been told in third-person from the POV of Mamah in past tense). I ran into this present-tense writing in Pratical Magic, and I didn't like it then either. Technically, an author can do whatever he or she darned-well pleases with a book, but it's generally accepted that books are written in past tense, so to read in present-tense is jarring and you find yourself getting hung up on that. I think she did this because the tone of the book is 180-degrees different at this point, but the switch to FLW's POV and the change in what was going on would have been sufficient. It came across as gimmicky, and that's not the last taste you want to leave in readers' mouths.
The other flaw I found in this book, and why it only earned a B rating, was that the message that Horan wanted to send with the book, based on some interviews I saw online and a print interview that was included in the back of the version I purchased, stated that one reason for wanting to write the book was to show that the status of women in society hasn't really changed that much in the 100 years since this affair happened. The problem I have is that when one reads about how Mamah and FLW abadoned their children, why should things have changed? Why should we be more accepting of that? Why should that be applauded by society?
She wrote Mamah and FLW's realtionship as if they were experiencing true love, but I wrote at one point (as the relationship is becoming more mature),
"Mamah says she left Edwin because of lack of true love, but the way she views FLW when the lustre wears off is oddly familiar (see p. 134). One cannot look to others as inspiration for growth (FLW) or vitality in life (Mamah). It would seem that Mamah knows the good she should do (as seen in her remorse regarding her children), but is either too weak or selfish to do so."If Nancy Horan wanted to create a treatise about how true love should be espoused, why not write a story that shows this actual true love? I believe that she wanted to write Mamah and FLW with their flaws, that their relationship wasn't always happy, but it just waters down her message. I think (and this is absolute and total speculation) that Horan wanted to tell a story, I think (based on her interviews) that her growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and knowledge of FLW's life made him to be an interesting character, and she wanted to tell a tale about the role of women in society; unfortunately, she couldn't bring all three together. I think she should have scrapped Mamah and FLW (and just developed fictional characters) and told the story she wanted to tell; that, or drop the pretense about true love.
That being said, it's a good book in terms of writing (save the first-person nonsense in the denoument), and I'll be interested to read Horan's next book with fictional characters--see if she can develop characters of her own from nothing.