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Breaking away

Loving Frank A Novel Nancy Horan Ballantine Books: 368 pp., $23.95

August 19, 2007|Marion Winik | Marion Winik is the author, most recently, of "Above Us Only Sky."

IF the true events on which "Loving Frank" is based were as well known as "The Wizard of Oz" story, Nancy Horan's novel would be its "Wicked" -- the retelling of a tale about a villainess who is really a heroine following the dictates of her heart at any cost. Like Gregory Maguire's story about Frank L. Baum's character the Wicked Witch of the West, "Loving Frank" argues that the issue is not good versus evil but true morality versus conformism -- though real evil does make a dramatic appearance.

Unlike "Wicked," Horan's retelling of Frank Lloyd Wright's scandalous love affair has an insipid title. But I urge you to turn past that -- and perhaps, as I did, stay up half the night to finish it in one sitting.

Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Cheney and her electrical-engineer husband, Edwin, were among more than two dozen residents of Oak Park, Ill., who commissioned the architect to design homes for them between 1889 and 1913. Apparently Mamah (pronounced MEY-muh) was not the only client's wife to have a little thing with Wright. However, this little fling raged way out of control: After conducting a secret affair for years, Mamah and Frank left their spouses and a total of nine children and went to Europe in 1909.

Cheney divorced Mamah, citing her desertion. But although Wright's wife refused to end the marriage, he built the famous Taliesin for himself and his mistress in the hills of Wisconsin, where they lived until a servant set it afire, then killed her, her two children and four others with an ax in 1914 (which may have seemed to the small-minded to be as richly deserved as a house dropping on a witch).

Mamah, a brilliant woman with a college degree, was not suited to the role allotted to educated women of her time. She simply could not breathe, a plight made vivid in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 book, "The Yellow Wallpaper," and Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play, "A Doll's House." Ironically, the way out for Mamah proved to be a house -- one that Wright designed for her family.

In Horan's novelized version of their story, pieced together from newspaper accounts, public records and Mamah's letters, they fall in love over the blueprints, then force themselves apart because she is already pregnant with her husband's second child. But not long after little Martha is born, Mamah lets herself be swept away.

As Mamah leaves her home and children, she examines and reexamines the moral basis of her choice. She no longer loves her husband; she can no longer stand to watch life go by rather than living it; she feels completely reborn in body and mind through her relationship with Wright.

But does this justify the resulting damage? These questions pierce ever more deeply as the couple, holed up in Berlin, is sniffed out by the press. Clippings soon begin to arrive (all newspaper excerpts in the novel are real). In the scandalized euphemism of the day, their hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, writes: "A wife pledging faith in a husband gone with another woman . . . two abandoned homes where children play at the hearthsides, and a fly-by-night journey through Germany -- these are features which make an affinity tangle of a character unparalleled even in the checkered history of soul mating."

Unexpected solace comes when Mamah happens upon a pamphlet advertising a talk by Swedish feminist Ellen Key. As Mamah explains to Wright, Key asserts that "once love leaves a marriage, then the marriage isn't sacred anymore. But if a true, great love happens outside a marriage, it's sacred and has its own rights." There could be no more welcome thought to the guilt-ridden Mamah, and she sends Wright on to Paris alone so she can stay and hear Key. Afterward, the two women meet, and Mamah agrees to become proficient in Swedish to translate Key's work into English. No problem for a woman who spoke three languages by the time she was in kindergarten.

Though both Key's philosophy and business dealings would prove problematic, the translation work fulfills Mamah, who comes to feel that it's as much for this as for Wright that she left her old life, especially when he turns out to be a less-than-perfect partner.

Horan does a beautiful job of shading in the portrait of this artist-genius, from the scene of Wright rearranging the furniture in a fancy Berlin hotel room to his justifying all kinds of purchases he can't afford as things he needs for his work. She also captures Mamah's deeply troubled relationship with her children and her conflicting feelings about her role as a mother.

Horan's nuanced evocation of these flawed human beings plays beautifully against the lurid facts of their situation. As in the best historical fiction, she finds both the truth and the heart of her story. *

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