I don’t usually read historic fiction but I picked this up as a recommendation from my sister. Nancy Horan is a writer and journalist who spent most of her life in Oak Park, Illinois, where Frank Lloyd Wright had lived for many years and created a notable architectural legacy. As she became interested in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life she learned of his love affair with Martha (Mamah) Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients, with whom he had run off to Europe, leaving behind 8 children between the two families.
Although a great deal is known of Frank Lloyd Wright, very little was known of Mamah Cheney. Horan had done quite a bit of research with secondary resources, but she was able to more fully flesh out Mamah Borthwick’s character when several of her letters were found.
What Nancy Horan delivers is a very even- handed and beautifully compelling story of the love between two people, who defy social convention so that they may be together.
Under Horan’s expert hand Mamah Borthwick comes to life as a very conflicted, passionate and intellectual woman who follows her heart. A highly educated feminist who speaks several languages, she is in every way an intellectual match for the eccentric, brilliant and egotistical Frank Lloyd Wright.
While women today have many opportunities that Mameh couldn’t possibly have imagined, the feminist dilemna that frames this story is still very relevant today. How do you balance your own intellectual and emotional needs with a happy and fulfilling family life? Can you follow your emotional and intellectual dreams and be happy in family life? Is it moral and right to stay in a loveless marriage for the ‘sake’ of the children? Can you be a good parent if you’re not personally fulfilled? Should children come first? These are all questions that Mameh faced each and every day of her life and which hounded her both publically in the press and privately.
Yet, she remained true to herself and to a love that she felt was one of the only authentic things in life. She struggled daily with her choices and yet you don’t imagine for one moment that she could have lived her life any other way. This is a compelling but difficult story.
The bonus in this book, is of course, that the man she has fallen in love with is Frank Lloyd Wright and the book fleshes out his character and the life and times that fuelled his vision of form. He was a difficult guy to love. Egotistical, brilliant, flamboyant, a terrible businessman who rarely paid his bills on time, he was selfish and driven. But he had a remarkable vision of beauty and form that changed the course of American architecture. And he also loved Mameh Borthwick with his heart and soul.
” Mamah and I have had our struggles , our differences our moments of jealous fear for our ideals of each other – they are not lacking in any close human relationship – but they served only to bind us more closely together. We were more than merely happy even when momentarily miserable…Her soul has entered mine and it shall not be lost.”
When great art and great love forms itself against convention there is a price to pay and the price is often steep. In this kind of tale, it seems to me, there is no right and wrong although society certainly does/did its fair share of condemnation. I think Mamah Borthwick made some very tough choices for which she paid dearly. But she lived a life that was authentic to herself. I thought this was a really interesting book that is as relevant to women’s issues today as it was during Mamah Borthwick’s time. Nancy Horan brought to life a remarkable man and woman and their love story.
Nancy Horan has a web site that is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to know more about the characters or how the book came to be written. http://www.nancyhoran.com/