October 2007

Sheldon Laskin


Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Willie Stark. Charles Foster Kane. Shaw and Morgan.

These enduring fictional characters from three classic works of American literature and film have given people more insight into the characters of Huey Long, William Randolph Hearst, and Leopold and Loeb than any biography or history ever could.

In choosing to fictionalize their stories of historical men, Robert Penn Warren (All The King’s Men), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), and Alfred Hitchcock (Rope) were able to engage in extensive studies of motivation and character development without being mired down by the narrative limitations of a straightforward historical account. By choosing this technique, Warren, Welles, and Hitchcock each created a masterpiece of aesthetic truth even if the historical facts were not quite as described in those works.

Not so Nancy Horan. Her overly-hyped first novel, Loving Frank, is a flat, dry recitation of the story of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s seven-year affair with Mamah Borthwick and of their house, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. Meticulously researched -- I would say over-researched -- the book is little more than a chronological account of the basic facts of the relationship from its beginnings in 1904 until its tragic end in 1914.

Totally absent from the book is any insight into the characters of Mamah or Frank. Horan is either unwilling or unable to let us learn about her characters other than through continuous exposition -- we know that Mamah is a bored, intellectual woman, trapped in a dull marriage totally at variance with her radical ideas about love and marriage only because Horan tells us so. It is a hallmark of good writing when the author can help the reader gain such insights organically, by engaging with the writing, instead of having it spoon-fed. Similarly, we learn about the salacious news coverage of the affair because Horan quotes the newspaper articles verbatim at great length. There is nothing at all creative about Horan’s too extensive quotation of primary sources. And at 350 pages, Loving Frank’s endless virtually identical descriptions of blue skies, colorful flowers and the aesthetics of architecture become tedious. After Mamah runs off with Frank in 1907, there are no major plot developments until the end, and what plot developments there are have a wearying sameness to them; nothing of significance changes and there are no character epiphanies. Even Mamah’s relationship with Swedish feminist Ellen Key replicates her relationship with Frank. Key engages Mamah to translate her works for an American audience and then proves, like Wright, to be fast and loose in her interpretation of her commitments to people.

Also, for a novel about a torrid love affair there is almost no eroticism to the story. It is easy enough to understand why a woman like Mamah would be charmed into a brief affair with an eccentric genius such as Wright. But seven years with a pompous, arrogant liar, long after she has seen him for what he was? Of course such relationships exist, but fiction should at least try to explain why people behave this why.

The closest Horan comes to analyzing Mamah’s motivation occurs towards the end. Appalled that Frank has once again indulged his obsession to recklessly spend money (in this case, to completely furnish Taliesin, including purchasing not one, not two, but three baby grand pianos), while stiffing his workers on their wages, Mamah leaves him and goes to Chicago. She swears she won’t return until he changes. Within days, he appears on her doorstep and apologizes. She returns to him although there is no evidence he has reformed and in fact, he hasn’t. Once again, her return is explained entirely by the historical narrative -- she must return because the story is about to end.  

DISCLAIMER: For those who are fussy about such things, I am about to tell you the ending. Ordinarily, I would not do this in a review of a work of fiction. But Horan sticks so closely to the historical record that you can learn the end of this story just by reading the Frank Lloyd Wright entry on Wikipedia. Given that Horan hasn’t constructed a surprise, I feel no compunction about discussing the ending. On the other hand, the ending illustrates both the central weakness of Horan’s chosen technique and, ironically, suggests a much better architecture -- this is a book about Frank Lloyd Wright, after all -- for her narrative.

First, this novel utterly lacks a dramatic climax. Given Horan’s approach to the material, there is no dramatic tension involving Mamah and Frank to resolve. Rather, the novel simply ends because of the homicidal intervention of a madman. A mentally unstable worker, Julian Carlton, becomes unhinged after several altercations with his fellow workers that culminate in Mamah’s dismissing him while Frank is away. He murders Mamah, her two children, and five co-workers with an ax and sets fire to the residential wing of Taliesin. While historically accurate, this ending in a work that purports to be fiction is in the nature of a deus ex machina.

Also, until Mamah’s death, the novel is written from her perspective. Once she is dead, the perspective shifts to Frank. While a shift in perspective is a perfectly valid writing technique, it should result in, well, a change in perspective. That is after all, the whole point. But shifting the perspective to Frank in this novel is merely a necessary device to finish the book: to flesh out the details of the crime, to describe the crafting of the coffins and the funerals, to set forth -- again by the verbatim recitation of an actual letter Frank wrote to the editor of the local paper -- Frank’s reaction to Mamah’s death, and finally, to announce Frank’s intention to rebuild Taliesin. We learn nothing more about Mamah, Frank or their relationship from Frank’s viewpoint than we knew from Mamah’s, because in reality, Horan has not told this story from either perspective. She has told it entirely from an historical timeline.

Ironically, the facts around the murders suggest an architecture for this story that could truly have enabled the material to soar. Julian Carlton was a madman; Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius. The two are not that far apart; when you read the details of the murder, you realize Carlton was quite intelligent and carefully planned how to attack eight adults without being subdued. How much more interesting this story would have been if told from the perspective of a fictional Julian Carlton. Horan would probably object that the real Carlton worked only briefly for Wright and would not be familiar with the Mamah-Frank relationship. But that is the beauty of fiction. Had Horan chosen to fictionalize the story, there would have been nothing to stop her from making the “Carlton” character a long-time Wright employee.

Frank Lloyd Wright rebuilt Taliesin. For over thirty years until his death in 1959, he lived there with his third wife, the dancer Olgivanna. Together, they established an eclectic artistic community. I would hope that whatever author decides to write a novel about Wright’s relationship with Olgivanna -- a relationship that seems more intrinsically interesting than his relationship with Mamah -- will emulate Warren, Welles, and Hitchcock in writing that story as a work of fiction and not as a slavishly literal historical novel.

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0-345-49499-3
363 pages

Sheldon H. Laskin is a freelance writer whose works have appeared in Tikkun Magazine and Ancestry Magazine.