The first time I heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, I was standing in the living room of the Hollyhock House, transfixed by my Occidental College professor Bob Winter. He was re-enacting the suicide of Mrs. Barnsdall’s goldfish. The tyrannical genius architect Wright (I believe the epithet Winter used was “Napoleonic”) had designed an indoor fishpond surrounding the living room fireplace. The first time Mrs. Barnsdall lit the logs, the water heated up, the fish leapt onto the carpet, and, one supposes, her dinner party was ruined (or a smash, but not for the goldfish).
So, seeing Wright as an insufferable fish-killer, I resisted the 2008 book-club hit Loving Frank in spite of its good press. At last, I picked it up and was pleased to find a rich, swift, historical novel that captures characters who appear very modern in their philosophy, yet still speak and write with an authentic, late-Victorian voice. Wright comes across less as an arrogant bastard (though there is plenty of that) and more of an artist driven by inner demons. “Loving Frank” is difficult for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright’s feminist lover and free-thinker, who would have starred in her own Edith Wharton novel had she not actually existed. Author Nancy Horan draws a wonderful portrait of Mamah, who is recognizable by women of every generation who have struggled with society’s strictures and their own yearnings for both intellectual freedom and family. Mamah and Frank’s travels and travails are faithfully chronicled, and eavesdropping on their imagined conversations is often thrilling. The wrenching consequences of their bold decision to live outside the bounds of society are minutely observed—and all too true.