Friday, April 26, 2013

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

“She had given up her right to keep her place as the children's most beloved. The small, daily offices of love that had connected her to the children before—the shoe tying, the hair combing, the nightly storytelling—were no longer hers to claim.” (255) 

                                                            Just Mother (cinema 1914), NYPL Film Archives

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is a novel I'm surprised to be posting about. I almost didn't keep reading it after the first few chapters. In many ways, this novel didn't, and still doesn't, strike me as a very good piece of fiction. Horan is a journalist by training, and she's writing an extremely historical novel that closely follows everything she was able to discover about Frank Lloyd Wright's affair with a married mother of two, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Much of the detail Horan includes seems included only because it's something she discovered. Little of it goes to theme or helps to unify the story as a whole. As a result, there are red-herrings all over the place for a reader who's looking for a writer of fiction to develop these things. I spent half the book waiting for the youngest daughter to die of typhoid or something because we get so much detail about how sick she feels on the train. I kept waiting for Horan to do something with the fact that this woman named Mamah abandons her children. I kept waiting for her to use space as a metaphor. None of this happened... and yet...

I kept reading. In part, I kept reading because a friend told me something terrible happens. This is undoubtedly part of the reason I continued flipping pages (don't google the names if you want to have the same experience), but I found myself actually moved by the identity crisis Horan imagines for Mamah as she tries to reconcile her love of her children with the irresistible pull she feels toward her own projects, mostly translations of feminist author Ellen Key. A lot of what she says feels very contemporary, so even though I think it may be Horan's voice I'm hearing, I like it. 

The other thing the book brought home was that even when fiction isn't "great," even when it doesn't consider unifying themes or execute them particularly beautifully, there is something powerful about simply telling things as we know they happened and imagining how people felt in those circumstances. It was like a guided tour in a museum by a very creative guide, and that act on its own can be powerful. 

Mostly though, I can't wait to read T.C. Boyle's The Women.


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