What’s love got to do with it?

Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s debut novel, would be more aptly titled, “Obsessed With Frank”-though that title probably wouldn’t help it sell as well as it has since its publication.

Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s debut novel, would be more aptly titled, “Obsessed With Frank”—though that title probably wouldn’t help it sell as well as it has since its publication. The book is a fictionalization of the real-life affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah (pronounced May-muh) Borthwick-Cheney that took place in the first part of the 20th century.

Certainly it owes some of its popularity to its subjects, especially Wright, who to this day is one of the most celebrated architects in American history. Like any other celebrity, dead or otherwise, people love to read about his life. With the book being rumored to reach the bestsellers list soon, it appears people are eating it up. Then there are those who seem to be interested in the story for the romance of it; two passionate and intelligent individuals forsaking everything for love — condemning themselves to the fringes of society to share the love they can’t seem to deny.

But Loving Frank is neither a celebrity bio, nor a romance novel. Instead it is a story of unfortunate, even tragic, circumstances and complex characters—focused not on Wright, but rather on the character of Mamah. Mamah Borthwick-Cheney, later Mamah Borthwick, who has often been passed off as an unfortunate episode in the life of Wright, comes to the forefront in Horan’s novel. The story, for the most part, is told from her perspective. It’s clear from the book that Horan did extensive research to create an alternate picture of someone, who according to Publisher’s Weekly is “best known as the woman who wrecked Frank Lloyd Wright’s first marriage.”

Much of the character development in Horan’s novel is phenomenal. Rather than giving her readers omniscience regarding the strengths and flaws of her characters, she allows them to come into that knowledge along with the characters, unknowing of how their decisions will pan out. This leaves her audience with a feeling of completion and resolution lacking in many works of fiction.

Borthwick especially stands out as an example of this. She, above everyone else, seems like a real person, endowed with exquisite detail and a realistic personality. Horan used excellent foreshadowing techniques in describing her as a child, already showing signs of one who does not belong to the era she was born into. For the reader she comes alive in a way that defies simple words on a page. 

Throughout the novel the reader is given a picture of an exceptional individual in Borthwick, including her clear obsession with Frank Lloyd Wright, though not necessarily genuine love for him. A writer’s job is to tell their readers a story through descriptions, heavy on the actions. But when reading about Borthwick and Wright, there seems to be a lack of actions indicating actual love—though there are a whole lot of indications of passion, lust and obsession. But what appears to be a flaw in the writing is actually mastery.

When the reader begins to ask how in the world such a well-educated, supposedly dedicated mother, can leave her life, her children and put herself in a position of such turmoil—and all for a man who is arrogant and self-absorbed, they fall right into Horan’s web. By the time everything is untangled, the characters lives are irrevocably changed—as are the readers’ opinions of them.

Loving Frank is well written and intriguing. While I didn’t come out of it with any particular love for the characters, I did walk away with a respect and admiration for the author. Horan’s novel, though fiction, mirrors reality in a way that is often unsettling and frustrating. Her characters act in ways that make you want to scream, “Don’t you see what your doing?” That is the mark of a good story. I recommend adding it to your personal library, though I’d wait until it comes out in paperback.