I don’t know why I didn’t expect much of this book. Where did I get the idea that it was a fluffy love story? Not so. This is the fictional tale of Mamah Borthwick’s extramarital affair with architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Mamah really lived, and she really had an affair with FLW; but her story here is fictionalized. Another of those sticky questions of historical fiction: where is the boundary between fact and fict? Horan includes a nice author’s note at the end (probably my favorite way of handling this question) and gives some details about where she began using her imagination. History has not taken great note of Mamah Borthwick; most of the information available to her was about FLW.
This is a lovely story, well told. Several different threads are explored that I found interesting. Frank Lloyd Wright himself, and his art and architecture (subjects I had not explored previously) are outlined, along with his Oak Park celebrity and the birth of his “organic architecture.” Mamah is involved in the women’s movement, for suffrage and equal pay and general independence and equality. I especially loved the scenes where she picks up a book, and attends a lecture given, by the Swedish feminist author Ellen Key. Mamah is so moved, considers the topics so well – she is an intellectual and an artist herself, you see. She takes on a mid-life career translating Key’s work (again, this is true to history), and I found the depiction of translation, and Mamah’s own writing as well, to be a really rich part of her story. This is far from being a book about Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a book about love, and morals, and the dilemma of being married to one man and loving another. Mamah and Frank have nine children between them. Imagine that: nine children! There is also the issue of their reputations being irreparably damaged in the national media.
Frank and Mamah are fellow residents of Oak Park, Illinois (suburb of Chicago, and hometown of Ernest Hemingway, who was a small boy during the events of this book) when Mamah and her husband hire the local celebrity to build them a new home. There is chemistry immediately, although it takes a few years for the affair to begin. As their own marriages begin to fall apart, Mamah leaves Oak Park and takes her children with her to visit an old friend in Colorado, eventually leaving her children for her husband to collect, and meeting up with Frank for a tour in Europe. Their relationship blossoms and takes form as they travel, experiencing the world, getting to know one another more openly; it is here that Mamah meets Ellen Key, whose philosophies are hugely important in the couple’s worldview and feelings about their own actions. Frank has left a wife and six children; Mamah has left her children as well, and we can imagine how the world more than a century ago viewed a mother abandoning her children.
The two will eventually move to the Wisconsin valley that has been home to Frank’s family for generations, where he builds for Mamah the home called Taliesin. They are plagued by public disapproval, and the continuing unhappiness of various family members. But they also find the local community eventually supportive. And then there is the big event. Mamah’s story concludes with a shocking final episode that comes out of the history books, so let me say: if you don’t already know what happens, you might consider letting Horan surprise you. It is not a happy ending. But I feel that Horan handles it with great dignity.
I was reminded time and time again of another lovely work of historical fiction, Susan Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany. These books are both about women who really lived but are marginalized in history, allowing two authors to write their stories, fictionalized, from research; both were involved (in different ways) with far more historically well-known men; both involve art and art appreciation; both are beautifully written, exploring emotions, and the issues of women’s role in art and in society at more or less the same time in history. I find myself noting these read-alike relationships, and sometimes worry that I may be seen as lowering one or the other of these books by comparing them to others, like I’m calling them less original. I am not. Both of these books are beautiful and original; just allow me to say that if you like one you may like the other.
I loved this book from start to finish. Horan, and narrator Joyce Bean, immersed me completely in the time and the many places of Mamah’s story. I cared very much about all the characters. The events of Frank and Mamah’s lives – bittersweet, shocking, loving, touching, tragic, hopeful, all of them – came fully to life. I really enjoyed getting to know these interesting people, even when they were not at their best. I am charmed, and impressed.