50 pages 1 hour read

Nancy Horan

Loving Frank

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Loving Frank is a 2007 historical fiction novel by Nancy Horan exploring real-life architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with translator Mamah Bouton Borthwick from 1903 to 1914. Their affair drew public attention in the early 20th century, and Horan’s novel explores this fame and its effect on public figures, the role of art in self-expression, and society’s treatment of women. Horan has also written the novels Under the Wide and Starry Sky (2014) and The House of Lincoln (2023). Loving Frank received the 2009 Prize for Historical Fiction from the Society of American Historians for its detailed research into the life and times of its characters.

This guide is based on the 2007 edition published by Ballantine Books.

Content Warning: Loving Frank depicts murder, including child death.

Plot Summary

Loving Frank opens with an introduction written as a letter from translator Mamah Bouton Borthwick in 1914, explaining that it was her former husband Edwin “Ed” Cheney’s idea to build a new home. She had a good relationship with Ed, and he suggested that their new home be designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Viewing one of Frank’s homes, Mamah was in awe of his work. Looking back, she didn’t realize the disaster to come.

The narrative flashes back to 1907, when Mamah goes to hear Frank publicly speak. He finished Mamah and Ed’s house in 1904, and they then asked him to design a garage. Mamah and Frank grew close during the construction, with her developing feelings for him; they began an affair shortly after, despite both already being married. In the present, Mamah and her two children, John and Martha, stay with her college roommate in Boulder, Colorado. She finally reveals her affair to her husband, who wishes for her to stay in the marriage. After Mamah’s friend Mattie gives birth, she decides to go to New York and then Europe with Frank, leaving her children in Colorado to be picked up by Ed.

As Mamah and Frank venture across the ocean, she feels guilty for abandoning her children, but Frank comforts her. She begins to relish her freedom. They stay in Berlin for a while as Frank works with a publisher on a monograph. When Mamah finds Goethe’s Hymn to Nature in a bookstore, she remembers how much she enjoys translating, and she and Frank translate it into English together. Soon after, she learns her friend Mattie passed away. Then, her and Frank’s affair catches the public eye. Mamah is scandalized but prefers this to remaining in an unhappy marriage.

When Mamah finds a flyer for an event with philosopher Ellen Key in a more remote part of France, she and Frank split up so she can attend while he continues on to Paris. In Ellen’s writing, Mamah finds support for her decision to be with Frank, and after the talk, she speaks with Ellen, offering to translate her work into English for an American audience. Ellen requires that she learn Swedish and gives her an essay to translate as a test. When Mamah finally arrives in Paris, only to disclose that she needs to go to Leipzig for her Swedish class, Frank is upset, but she points out that he invited her to explore her freedom too.

Mamah excels in her Swedish class and becomes Ellen’s translator. She also reunites with Frank in Italy. He suggests that they move to Wisconsin together, but Mamah is reticent to live in the United States given the negative attention they have received for their affair—especially since Frank is still married and his wife refuses to grant him a divorce. He returns to America, and Mamah goes to Berlin to teach and translate. Soon after, Ed sues Mamah for divorce, and she alerts Frank, who comes to Berlin. He again invites her to come with him to Wisconsin.

As their new house—which Frank calls “Taliesin”—is built, Mamah and him stay with his sister nearby. Mamah is in charge of feeding the workers, and Frank’s mother barely speaks to her. Soon after they move into their new home, reporters swarm Mamah and Frank, criticizing them for abandoning their families. Even Ellen seems to criticize Mamah since her children have been drawn into the drama. Frank calls a press conference to tell his and Mamah’s side of the story, but he goes off script, opening them up to more criticism.

As time passes, Mamah realizes Frank has been hiding financial troubles and owes money to contractors and merchants. She berates him and ultimately leaves for Chicago. However, she comes to understand Frank’s wife better since she probably needs to stay married to him in order to ensure he’ll send child support. Mamah decides to forgive Frank, feeling they both need to start over.

In 1914, Mamah’s children come to stay with her and Frank for part of the summer. Still translating for Ellen despite her disagreements with some of the philosopher’s ideas, Mamah decides to write a book about women’s stories. She and Frank live happily, but some staff members’ complaints force her to fire the cook and her husband, Julian. The next day, Julian enters the dining room, where Mamah is eating lunch with her children, and brandishes an ax. He also sets the house on fire. News of the fire gets to Frank, who is in Chicago, and he, along with his son and Ed, rush to Taliesin. By the time they arrive, the house has been mostly destroyed, and Mamah and her children are dead, having been killed by Julian. The survivors bury Mamah the next day, and Ed takes the bodies of his children home.

Mamah’s death haunts Frank, and he writes to the Weekly Home News, criticizing the press for their treatment of Mamah during their affair—emphasizing that they chose to live their lives as truthfully as they could. He collects shattered pieces of art from the ashes of the fire. Eventually, he decides to put these items in the foundation of the house he will rebuild on the same site.

The Afterword recounts how Nancy Horan used a variety of materials to reconstruct the life of Mamah Bouton Borthwick.

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