Over the past two months, both of our book discussion groups have read the historical fiction novel Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. Loving Frank is the fictional account of the relationship between famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. I knew little about Wright's work, let alone his personal life; after reading Loving Frank, I wanted to learn more about this man whose life was truly stranger than fiction. The stories of his loves, losses, mistresses, and wives provides the backdrop for another novel, T.C. Boyle's The Women.
While The Women details all of Wright's wives and his mistress, Loving Frank focuses solely on Mamah Cheney. In 1909, both Wright and Cheney left their spouses and children for a two-year European excursion. The trip was an "elopement" of sorts that spawned media and public scrutiny, effectively ruining Wright's career for at least a decade and breaking up both the Cheney and Wright households. The relationship was also the foundation for Wright's prairie mansion, Taliesin, that provided the couple with a respite from the harsh critics in their native Chicago, but also set the scene for a horrific murder rampage and fire that claimed the lives of seven people.
The gruesome Taliesin murders provide a chilling climax and finale for both novels, however, The Women travels through Wright's life in reverse chronological order. The novel starts with Olgivanna, Wright's third wife, then Miriam, Wright's second wife, and finally Kitty (first wife) and Mamah. Miriam certainly causes the most spectacular drama here, arranging press conferences to discuss her husband's philandering, filing lawsuit after lawsuit against Frank in multiple states, and trespassing in to hotel and hospital rooms in hopes of catching her husband. She proves to be the most interesting of the 4 women, but definitely not in a positive way.
Overall, I would suggest Boyle's The Women over Loving Frank. Nancy Horan's account relied too much upon the romantic aspect, and could have offered more details about the consequences. Also, Horan delves deeply into the relationship between Cheney and Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist philosopher who greatly influenced Mamah's life choices. While Key provides an interesting backdrop, if not an explanation, there is simply not enough to drive the large portion of the novel that Horan devotes to this particular storyline. However, even though I favored The Women, I still enjoyed Loving Frank.
If you want to learn about the "other" side of Frank Lloyd Wright, check out these books -- you will not be disappointed!