I had received word I could be in a waiting room up to three hours while my mom had routine cataract surgery. Like any avid reader, my first thought was I need to find a good book. I turned to Becky’s blog A Book a Week (one of my favorite sources for fiction selections). Her glowing review, and the possibility of an interesting conversation with my mom who’d also read the book helped finalize my decision.
What is the book about?
The book is a fictional account of the real life story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s affair with one of his clients, Mamah Borthwick Cheney in the early 1900’s. They both abandon their spouses and children; she had two and he had six, to flee to Europe for a year. She receives a divorce from her husband Edwin Cheney, but Frank’s wife Catherine refuses to grant him one. Hounded by the press even in Europe, Frank convinces Mamah to return to the U.S. where he will build her a sanctuary. True to his word, he builds Taliesin near his boyhood home in Wisconsin. Her new life is not perfect; her purpose at Taliesin seems to be cooking for the men building her new home, Frank’s mother refuses to acknowledge her, they are discovered and again hounded by the press and Mamah realizes Frank who loves beautiful things, doesn’t pay his bills. She does re-establish a relationship with her children and Edwin allows them to spend summers at Taliesin. Eventually things begin to turn around for Frank, whose work had been negatively affected by their affair and he receives a commission to design Midway Gardens in Chicago. Mamah at last seems content with her new life when tragedy strikes.
I am originally from the Spring Green area and have toured Taliesin, so I was vaguely familiar with Mamah’s story, but found the tragic ending much more horrific than I had remembered. Horan’s book closely follows the events of the real story, but since so little of Mamah’s correspondence remains she needed to invent all of the conversations. I did feel the dialogue in some of these conversations was too contemporary for the era. When I asked my mom her opinion of the book she said only, “I don’t understand how she could have left her children.” The book is more than a love story; Mamah’s love affair with Frank was the catalyst which pushed her to search for her personality (now referred to as finding yourself) and provides plenty of fodder for book-club discussions:
While in Europe Mamah meets Ellen Kay a Swedish feminist writer and becomes her translator. In discussing the translation of Ellen’s belief “WOMEN NEED TO DEVELOP their personalities from within” Mamah wasn’t sure how the translations would be received after it was published, “The focus of the Women’s movement in America is the vote and equal pay.”
“To free women from conventionalism – that should be the aim of the struggle. What good does it do if woman is emancipated but has little education and no courage to act?Later in the book, Mamah becomes uneasy when translating “The Misuse of Woman’s strength.” Ellen argues that:
Men have always been trained to have the courage to dare. Women on the other hand, are stuck being the keepers of memories and traditions. We’ve been the great conservators. Oh, I suppose we’re suppler, as a result, because we’ve learned to see many sides. But what a price has been paid. It has kept us from greatness! And most women are happy just to repeat opinions and judgments they’ve heard as if they thought of the idea themselves. It’s dangerous! Women need to understand evolutionary science, philosophy, art. They need to expand their knowledge and stop assassinating each others’ characters.” (p. 150.)
“Women’s energy should be used for child rearing, that suffragists were wrongheaded to focus so intently on jobs and equal pay when motherhood was their legitimate work.” (p. 261.)Mamah is displeased with Ellen’s statements and is afraid if she publishes them, it will set back the women’s movement in America. She points out:
“It’s ironic that Ellen has never married or had children, yet she feels free to expound upon motherhood, I think that’s rather arrogant.” (p. 261.)
Does Mamah have a valid point? What about today? Should women who don’t have children be able to judge women who put their children in daycare and work outside of the home?
Wasn’t there a better way?
Did Mamah have to abandon her children the way she did? Did both her and Frank have to hurt so many people? I realize there were few options for women who at the time were still considered property,* despite having a master’s degree, no one would hire a divorced woman and after the divorce her children didn’t live with her permanently because Edwin refused to allow her to have custody, but still there had to have been a better way. Even today, when a woman abandons her children for another man or to find herself she is judged harshly.
Should Mamah have been punished for the rest of her life for choosing the wrong man?
Jessie (Mamah’s single, childless sister who helped care for her children after Mamah left says:
“You had everything? You had a wonderful man who adored you, beautiful healthy children. Freedom. No money worries. A nanny and a housekeeper. You didn’t have to work and Edwin never asked a thing of you. Do you realize what you gave up for Frank Wright? The kind of life most women – most feminists – dream of?” (p. 295.)
What I can’t stop thinking about?
The issue isn’t whether Mamah should have suffered for marrying the wrong guy. The real victim in the story is Ed Cheney. He lost everything and all because he married the wrong woman.
*Frank Lloyd Wright writes a wife is still “property” in his letter to the Weekly Home News after Mamah’s death.