Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank falls in one of my least favorite categories of fiction – historical fiction written about real, well-known personalities, where the author is putting words in the mouths of people who likely never said or did anything of the kind. Frank of the title here is Frank Lloyd Wright, and the novel tells the story of his affair with Mamah Borthwick, a married woman who was friends with Wright’s first wife and eventually ran off with Wright, living with him until her murder at the hands of one of the family’s servants. Little is known of their affair’s details beyond scurrilous reports in contemporary newspapers, which pounced on the controversy, stalling Wright’s career in the States for years; Borthwick left few letters behind, leaving little direct evidence of her character and personality. The result is that Horan has fabricated two impossibly good characters in Borthwick and Wright, building a romance between them that feels antiseptic for its simplicity while glossing over the very real matter of both parties abandoning their young children for several years while they pursued their relationship and careers in Europe.
Borthwick and her husband, Edwin, hired Wright to build them a house, and during the process she and Wright developed a relationship around their shared interests; in Horan’s retelling, both were married unhappily to spouses who could not satisfy them intellectually, so the affair is primarily one of thoughts and emotions rather than physical attraction. Horan depicts Wright as demanding and somewhat temperamental, but also incredibly sensitive, a hard-driving boss who is tender and loving when he leaves the office – surely an idealized version of the actual Frank Lloyd Wright, who couldn’t have just left his haughty nature at work when it suited him. Borthwick was, in reality, a translator for the early European difference feminist Ellen Key, a secondary relationship Horan also explores in the book, similarly endowing Key with so many positive traits (and a way with words that just sounds artificial on the page) that she is hard to accept as a real-life character. Borthwick’s feminism contrasts with her desire to follow Wright, and eventually she must make small albeit significant choices between her affair and her wish to have an independent identity and career, but Horan can hand-wave these away because the pair did end up residing together at the origianl Taliesin in Wisconsin, a home Wright built specifically for the two of them.
The false tone of the text poisons it from the beginning of the book, unfortunately, and Horan seems to have too much affection for these superficial characters to recognize that, by lionizing them, she ends up demeaning them instead. Borthwick leaves her children far too easily – leaving her husband, an amiable provider who only wants a homemaker rather than an independent thinker, is much easier to understand – with too little remorse or guilt or even plans to maintain relationships with the children while she’s traveling with Wright and eventually studying on her own in Europe. An emotionally evolved woman like this fictional Borthwick would realize the deleterious effects of abandoning her two young children at their ages, and, more to the point, she’d miss them so powerfully that leaving with Wright and staying with him for months would have been excruciating choices. Horan needs to get Borthwick on that boat with Wright and almost dismisses Borthwick’s maternal instincts because they’re inconvenient. I found it difficult to avoid judging both characters harshly for leaving their children like that; I cannot imagine a situation where I’d leave my daughter for a year or more with barely any contact beyond an occasional letter. When you’re a parent, your child comes first. Even if the marriage is unhappy, you don’t have to flee the continent and forget your children to pursue a separate romance.
Borthwick’s murder by a Barbadian servant who never explained his “motives” (although, given the nature of the crime, he must have had some sort of psychotic break) provides Horan with a comfortable out for her story as well – it almost feels like the visitation of a divine judgment on Mamah for her abandonment of her family, and if it hadn’t actually happened, I’d be criticizing this as a needless and small-minded morality play. Instead, it’s just one false note after another, characters built around real people who were probably nothing like what Horan wanted them to be. It’s bad enough that Mamah and her children died such a horrible death; don’t spit on their graves by using them to project your own personal fantasies as well.
Next up: I’ve finished Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and have just begun Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.