Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Loving Frank

This book was brought to my attention several months ago but I didn't seriously consider reading it because I thought it was essentially a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect. I have a serious handicap when it comes to reading non-fiction and if I'm going to read a biography of someone, I wanted to read about someone whose life's details I had some...nay....any interest in knowing. An architect, even a really, really famous one, didn't meet that criteria.

When it was selected as a book group selection, I waved my white flag and read it anyway. Say what you will about book groups, one thing I appreciate about the forum is that they tend to throw books in my path that I wouldn't otherwise read. When I end up actually enjoying the mandated book, I appreciate the selection even more.

Loving Frank is part factual biography, part fictional novel featuring the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney's as she fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright. Mamah, a feminist, intellectual and suffragist, was married to safe, loyal but rather boring Edwin Cheney. The married couple were financially secure enough to keep a nanny, a housekeeper and eventually hire an up and coming architect to build one of his conceptually new "Prairie Houses". Financial and marital security did not bring contentment to Mamah, however, and when Wright intimately connects with her on an intellectual and emotional level during the building of her and her husband's home, a physical affair between the two quickly follows.

What makes this story compelling and great discussion fodder isn't Frank and Mamah's relationship or their affair, it's the constant negotiating and justification the author forces Mamah to debate with herself and with the world about the honesty and integrity of romantic and self love. For Mamah, a person's own happiness super ceded that of any one else's, including one's children, although she admitted several times how incongruous that belief felt at times. When she found literature written by radical thinker, Ellen Key, her belief that she should be with Frank at the expense of everything else, because she loved him, deepened. I am left wondering when, if ever, a selfish act is the BEST act. As much as the pair wished it to be so, they did not exist in a bubble and their relationship had real and lasting consequences to the families they abandoned.

If the moral debate is the actual gift of the book (and for me, it was), then the fancy wrapping and giant bow is the holy-cow-wow! drama and historically significant events that made up the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. This should be a very interesting discussion.

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