Book Club Wrap-Up: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Our book club met on Sunday to discuss Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, and we had the great pleasure to have Nancy visit with us by speaker phone!  It was such a treat to have her attend our meeting this way.  She was on her way to the airport to pick up her son but was still so gracious and kind.  She thoroughly answered every question we had with humor and wit, and gave us an incredible amount of insight into her characters, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the married woman he had an affair with, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.  

In 1907, both Frank and Mamah publicly and scandalously left their spouses and children (8 children between them) to go overseas for two years to carry on their affair, and continued to be together after returning home to this country.  Frank built Mamah a home in Wisconsin called Taliesin, where they lived together out of wedlock until Mamah’s untimely death in 1914. 

Our group enjoyed the book, but most of us disliked the flawed characters and their unpopular choices.  I think we all agreed that we enjoyed the discussion it generated even more than the book, and isn’t that what a book club is for.. great discussion? 

Frank, so flamboyant and eccentric, was such an egomaniac.  None of us cared much for him, although we could see the attraction for Mamah.  He was creative and intellectual, and he was interested in her opinion on everything.  In the beginning of their relationship, Mamah mentioned her grandmother and Frank wanted to know more.  

He sat down again and looked at her.  “Tell me everything,” he said.  

Tell me everything.  He might as well have said, “Take off your dress.”

Yes, attention is a powerful aphrodisiac.  But the man was horrible with money, he didn’t pay his debts or give credit where credit was due to the people who worked for him.  He lived beyond his means and bought things because he “needed to be surrounded by beauty”. In one memorable scene he bought a houseful of furniture, including three (3!!) grand pianos, all without consulting Mamah, whom he was living with at the time.  Nevermind he couldn’t pay the people who were helping to build his house.  Mamah, infuriated, insisted he return the pianos.

We liked Mamah a bit more, but couldn’t understand why she left her kids for years to follow Frank to Europe.  Clearly she was in love with him, but her husband, Edwin Cheney, was a nice and tolerant man who allowed her to do whatever she wished.  She had money, servants, freedom, friends, hobbies, household help, a caring husband and two beautiful children.  She wasn’t escaping domestic hell so much as carrying on an illicit affair, and I have to say we judged her pretty harshly. 

The issues Loving Frank brought up are still relevant today.  We talked about feminism, a woman’s place (then and now), maternal love vs. romantic love, duty, obligation, motherhood, careers, etc.  We talked about public people who’ve left their spouses for others (Brad Pitt, for instance) and how they are treated in the media.  We discussed how women are treated differently from men in that regard (Britney Spears and how she’s been skewered for being a poor mother).  

Some of us felt Mamah was a terrible mother for leaving her children to have a ‘bigger’ life than the domestic confines she found herself in.  Others felt that her personal growth was important enough to justify leaving her kids.  Some of us felt that if she had left to go on to do something great with her life, we could have been more sympathetic, but in truth all she did was follow a man around.   

We had the well worn “stay at home” vs. “working” mother discussion.  Some of us felt it would be less horrible to leave children behind with family to go explore other options in this day and age, with telephones and email and air travel.  In Mamah’s day, it took a month to go overseas, and there was no such thing as text messaging, IM’s or digital pictures to keep us up to date and connected to our loved ones who are separated from us.  All they had at that time was the painstakingly slow pace of the postal service or telegrams- it took weeks just to receive a letter.  

SO..  Loving Frank is a good book- and a really good book for a book club.  Ms. Horan did extensive research and then convincingly fleshed out her characters through fictional dialogue and situations that seemed very true and believable.  It’s historical fiction at it’s best. If you want to spark a great discussion with your book group, I would highly recommend it . 

Oh, I almost forgot- we had some awesome food!  What’s a book club meeting without good eats??  We decided on a European theme (where the lovers spent 2 years), so we had Pasta e Fagioli soup, bruschetta, some kind of cheesy broccoli pasta casserole, chicken sausage, Boston Crème Pie (not European, but who cares), and (of course) Chardonnay.  Tasty. 

The Loving Frank website can be found HERE.  Discussion questions can be found HERE.  

If you’ve read Loving Frank, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  If you’ve reviewed it, let me know and I’ll link it here.

29 Responses

  1. What a great review. But, I’m not sure I’m up for this book. I just feel uncomfortable about a woman leaving her kids like that. I already hate her! I think I would have trouble reading a book about her, then.

  2. If your book club ever wants to go on a field trip, you should go to Pittsburgh to see the Frank Lloyd Wright museum. It is quite lovely.

    • By “museum in Pittsburgh,” do you mean Fallingwater (www.fallingwater.org)? It’s well worth the trip.

      A trip to Oak Park, IL (outside Chicago) will give you a tour of his restored studio and house, and a walking tour of the exteriors of many of his Prairie Style houses that are still inhabited. Tip: Don’t go in the dead of winter–it can get very cold and windy in Chicago. Spring and early fall are your best bets for good weather.

      The book is thought-provoking. I suggest, just because you don’t agree with what a character does or thinks, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book and challenge or confirm your own views. Mamah Borthwich Cheney gave up a lot (in addition to her husband and children and rich suburban lifestyle) by “loving Frank.” This book leads to a lot of discussion questions.

      • I have almost finished reading this book. It was our book club choice for this month. It was slow going at first, but I am finding it quite interesting to read. I believe the author has put a lot of thought into what Mamah must have been experiencing/thinking when making the difficult decision to leave her family. It is a good read. Sadly, since I became curious and looked up Mamah on the internet, I know how it will have to end. I am very much looking forward to the discussion that will ensure this week in book club.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. I’m glad it sparked such an extensive discussion for you book group. And the food…now I’m hungry and it’s not even close to my lunch break!🙂

  4. Great review! I’m off to check the Loving Frank website.

  5. Sorry that this is totally unrelated, but I just got tagged for a meme that I think you would enjoy, the Book Buzz meme. My post about it is here.

  6. And even worse, I didn’t even link correctly (feel free to delete this comment and just edit my above link, if you want to). Here’s the real link:
    http://www.devourerofbooks.com/2008/08/book-buzz-tag/

  7. I read this book and enjoyed it. The characters were definitely flawed, though. How could a woman leave her children, especially back then? Of course, Frank had a huge ego, but that was part of his genius. The book did make me interested in his architecture and I have read about it and the Prairie and Craftsman styles.

  8. I read this a few months back when a book club hired me to create a kit (reading guide) for it. I thought it was a very fast , compelling read — but I struggle a little bit with the idea of harvesting the personal details of an artist’s life… However, I did enjoy it!

  9. I’m so glad you’re talking about this book. I read it from cover to cover in a few days and couldn’t put it down. I thought it was really fascinating and was surprised by how sympathetic Mamah turned out to be in the end. I went into the book judging her pretty harshly (because I knew the story beforehand).

    It still was hard to get past the idea of her leaving those children, as you said, in a day and age when going overseas was tantamount to totally cutting yourself off from your loved ones. It’s not like she had a videophone or even e-mail to keep in touch with them. I think that was the most painful part of the book for me.

    Well, except for the horrific ending, of course. I knew it was coming, but it was still even more heart-wrenching than I could’ve imagined.

    I can’t believe you got to talk to Nancy herself! That is just too cool, Lisa! Thanks for telling us all about it. -Julia🙂

  10. Great review; I’m hooked! I’ve checked out the Loving Frank site and put the book on hold at my library!

  11. I could not put this book down and I disliked both Frank and Mamah. What a fascinating story to tell and what a fabulous book written by Horan.

  12. I just finished the book. It wasn’t something I thought I would like, but when I recieved a complimentary copy I felt obligated to read it. I couldn’t put it down. I was upset with Mamah through the whole book because she was making terrible choices without knowing what she really wanted from life. I did not know the ending, so was very shocked by what happened. I do think it would make a great book club book.

  13. In your discussion with the author, did Nancy indicate how much of Mamah’s character, motive, tone, introspection- is fictionalized. Nancy accounts at the end of her book her sources, and admits to huge gaps and no real personal diaries from Mamah. In fact, my impression is that Mamah’s voice is from letters to Ellen Key. So- I’m wondering if in this book, Nancy largely creates Mamah to be somewhat sympathtic to the 21st century woman as she can be– or is Mamah really that way–did Nancy Horan give you any indication? Thank you.

  14. I completely agree with your review. I just got done reading the book last night, and was disappointed in the characters, although well developed by Horan. I also felt that the book was great, it was the people I found to be extremely selfish and pretentious.

    But, I have to say, not having known anything about the tragic ending, I was completely taken aback and the drama kind of “made up” for the lack of integrity the characters carried. So, I too have mixed feelings about the book, and the story.

    I guess for me the good things that did come out of the book was that it’s inspired me to check out Wright’s architecture! Plus, the ending did leave me wanting to reread the book! So, I think that’s a success?

    Anyway, your book club sounds fantastic and delicious! Wish I was there!

  15. Our book club is currently reading this book. I have finished it and I really enjoyed it. I knew the background of Frank and Mamah’s story so the ending was not a surprise. I actually found out about them during a tour of Wright’s former home and studio in Oak Park. Someone in the tour group asked the guide about them. With much reluctance (as they don’t like to discuss the issue) the guide revealed the story and the horrific ending. When Loving Frank came out I was very intrigued to read more about their love affair. If I can take anything away from their story, I’d have to call it a cautionary tale. Mamah traded her comfortable, safe existence for an infatuation with (most likely) an exciting man. But at such a cost! Although the author did not elaborate, I felt that near the end, their romance was cooling and had she lived long enough, Mamah probably would have left Frank. The story is really so sad that it does pull at your heart that it ended so badly. The author really does a great job in bringing the couple to life. No doubt not an easy task considering so little has been written of Mamah.

  16. […] addition to all that fun, my parents brought me two more books that now I have to read: Loving Frank and Tender Bar.  Since there seems to be some book love these days (thanks to DC Blogs for the […]

  17. […] Tuesday!), on a review I wrote back in August?  Wait- it’s not even a review- it’s a book club “wrap up” post for Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.  It was a good book and all, but why the sudden interest?  I […]

  18. Thanks for the review on this book. I think we’re going to read Loving Frank at my new book club, and I plan on bringing this review to share!

  19. I always wonder when women are so aghast and shocked and angry about a woman leaving family and going for a more fulfilling life, emotionally and intellectually, have they ever encountered someone/something so compelling that to not have it is to lose a chance of a lifetime? One lifetime, I might add. Yes, I wish children hadn’t been involved; that’s a tough one, but still…

  20. To answer as to the “sudden popularity” of the book, there is probably increased interest because author Nancy Horan is one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Literary Women event, held annually in Long Beach, Ca to a sell out,limited group of 800 readers. Often the half-dozen or so featured author’s books are not readily found in regualr book store, so attendees such as myself and my book club go to Amazon to order books to read before the event. I am looking forward to hearing from Ms. Horan, as well as other authors Lynn Stegner, Annie Barrows, Hillary Jordan, Margot Livesey, Honor Moore and Elizabeth Strout. I am busy reading in preparation for the Feb. 21 conference. Reading is alive in Long Beach!

  21. My book group read Loving Frank last November and we all enjoyed the book.

    Here’s the link to our book recap and my review:

    http://bookwormwithaview.blogspot.com/search/label/Loving%20Frank

  22. I feel many will judge poor Mamah harshly simply because she is a woman. Oh the grand double standard! Don’t you see she was one of the more fortunate women in the world. She found her true partner. That he wasn’t her husband and the father of her children became a matter of logistics which may have taken a good two years away from them to figure it out. At the turn of the century, women were punished for divorce, not men. The children then went to the father. That was the case up until the early 1960’s. I myself was the prodcut of divorce in 1960. My mother could not afford all three children so my father “allowed” her to have me, the only girl and he took the boys. Instead of paying child support, he just took two of her children. Thank God times have changed. Mamah was a woman of conviction and one of the most honest heroines I been fortunate to read about.

  23. It’s fascinating how quickly we judge other woman, but are so forgiving of men.
    Visit Oak Park, IL if you want to get a real feel for F.L.W. and Mamah. The Pilgrim Congregational Church (mentioned briefly in the book) is still an active, thriving congregation with original pews, interior, etc., as well as the walking tour of F.L.W homes, the Unitarian Temple, etc.

  24. i loved this book ‘loving frank’, it was one of the best love stories i have read in a long time. it makes you want to go visit the places they lived. also why can’t this be made into a movie.?that would be wonderful. their lives were just like anyone elses, i think mamah gave up alot in her life, for the love of others.to me frank was a restless type of person.it seemed he didn’t have enough time to produce all he could do.anyway this was a great book.

  25. My book club has decided to discuss this book. I started to read it and was very disappointed. It comes across as upscale soap opera.

    Since we must read the book in question if we wish to attend the book club I am afraid that I shall miss this meeting. There are so many excellent books to read and so little time I have decided that I shall give “Loving Frank” a pass.

  26. I finally read this book – on the beach in RI. After growing up in OP and passing all the sites and houses mentioned in the book I had NO IDEA of the historical significance. Whoa! What an enlightening book and I loved every sinlge word of it. BUT I MUST say I can’t get the horrific picture of Mr Cheney digging thru the ashes to “bring his son home”. So sad it borke my heart….I have not gottne the image out of my head yet….sooo sad.

  27. I think it’s great that some women made sacrifices to gain personal independence, and I understand to a large degree the choices that Mamah made; however, now that I am a mother, I don’t see how I could ever have walked away from my children to follow a man. But then again, I have had the freedom to explore my relationships with men long before I became a mother at 36. So I’m really torn for Mamah. I would have loved if this reviewer had published Horan’s answers since she was so fortunate to have Horan provide insight.

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