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Loving Frank a Historical Novel on Frank Lloyd Wright's Romantic Affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney

Updated on January 7, 2013

Loving Frank is the debut book of writer Nancy Horan, a historical novel that has made the New York Times best seller list, been added to the Random House Reader's Circle and has won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 2009.

Best Books 2009

Loving Frank, a Historical Novel by Nancy Horan and New York Times Best Seller
Loving Frank, a Historical Novel by Nancy Horan and New York Times Best Seller

James Fenimore Cooper Prize

The James Fenimore Cooper Prize (named after the most famous American historical novelist of the 19th century) is a biannual award given by The Society of American Historians every odd-numbered year. The prize is granted to a book on an American subject, within the historical fiction genre, that complies with the following criteria:

  • makes a significant contribution to historical understanding of its readers
  • portrays in an authentic way the people and events of the historical past
  • and, displays literary quality both in narrative construction skills and prose style.

The purpose of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize is to honor works of literary fiction that significantly advance the historical imagination.

Loving Frank won the prize in 2009 for best historical fiction.

James Fenimore Cooper Prize Winners

Loving Frank: A Novel
Loving Frank: A Novel

"thoughtful debut novel that pits morality against passion…… the perfect selection to jump-start some satisfyingly heated arguments within your book club" –USA Today


Summary of the Best Seller Book "Loving Frank"

Shortly stated, Loving Frank is a work of fiction based on events related to the love affair of the famous avant-garde architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

The story between these real life characters attends the juxtaposition, and sometimes disagreeing ideas, of morality and passion, through a romance that violates many of society’s conventions and is judged by everyone around them, making it a challenging adventure for both lovers.

Mamah Borthwick Cheney is a professional woman with truncated career dreams that has settled for a mismatched marriage, and yearns for excitement in her life. All though Edwin, her husband, is a loving, decent, good man, she doesn´t feel happy living by his side.

Frank Lloyd Wright is a renowned, controversial, intelligent American architect who is commissioned by Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney to design a new home for the couple.

During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction develops between Mamah and Frank, both of whom are otherwise engaged: meaning married with children.

At first, Mamah tries to avoid Frank and stops herself from getting involved in the betrayal of her friend –Frank Lloyd Wright's wife- and her Husband, Edwin.

In time, Mrs. Borthwick surrenders to her love and passion for the creative, eccentric and admirable architect, and starts an out-off wedlock romance that ends up shocking Chicago’s society and having deep transforming impact in both lovers.

This book depicts the period from 1907 to 1914, during which the affair flourished.


"A fascinating love story enriched by important themes and spiced by a famous character"

– San Francisco Chronicle


The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright developed an innovative architectural concept known as "Organic Architecture" inspired by the sound structures of nature and based on the way nature works out its building projects, which include 3 design essentials: proportion, scale and unity of ideas.

Lloyd’s professional purpose was to make of American architecture something new: develop houses and buildings that spoke of the prairie land in which he grew up in, instead of the European models that were being imitated at the time. Lloyd wanted to fuse his designs with the natural surroundings in a fluent, non-disruptive way, following the contours of the land and the structure of nature’s flora.

During the "prairie period", in which this story’s events take place, Frank Lloyd Wright experiments, refines and evolves his ideas about organic architecture with each new project he creates.

Frank's sole recommended book for wannabe architects

Characters and Background of One of the Best Books of 2009

Mamah and Frank met in Chicago, in 1903, a moment in history in which divorce wasn’t as common, and deeply conservative values prevailed. Nevertheless, they are brought together by the mutual understanding and admiration they find in each other.

Mamah Borthwick is sickened by guilt and is constantly torn by regrets of leaving her children; but, at the same time, she knows she has the right to re-do her life and search for her own happiness and fulfillment.

Influenced by Ellen Key's books and personal philosophy (focused on freeing women from the conventionalism, moral laws and judgement that keep them down and prevent them from greatness), Mamah Borthwick develops her own ideas, which help her justify her choices for herself. Confined by her milieu, she revolts and struggles for freedom to stand alone and make her own choices.

On the other hand, Frank Lloyd Wright is a determined guy who knows what he wants and goes for it without hesitation; he is used to think out of the box, and stand behind his unorthodox ideas, actions and creations; he does it all the time in his work and is well adept at handling controversy. However, he also has moral considerations for himself, as his love affair takes him away from his children's home.

They both find in each other a true friend with whom they can be open and talk to, but more importantly, count on, to give them the strength they need to face the consequences of their open, unconventional love.


"Loving Frank reveals what we expect to get from great fiction: timeless truths about ourselves"

–New York Daily News


Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney

Picture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney taken from the novel Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Picture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney taken from the novel Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Loving Frank: Historical Research and Sources

All though Frank Lloyd Wright’s life has been well documented and explored, there is very little information about Frank’s romantic affairs with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. As a historical novelist, Nancy Horan chose to approach her subject matter as closely possible to the historical records, and wrote her novel piecing together Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography (and its brief account of Mamah Borthwick), with other architecture books written by Wright, as well as old news papers, memoirs by people who lived in the neighborhood of their marital homes, census reports, correspondence between Mamah Borthwick and Ellen Key (the Swedish feminist for whom she translated) and books on women’s roles during the early part of the twentieth century.

In words of the author:

"by overlaying Wright's well-documented life with Mamah's- as it played out in her letters and other records; by examining the ideas and events that enlivened the times and places in which they lived; and by integrating what Mamah was translating and Frank was writing, a picture of their characters and experiences over a seven-year period evolved. That framework allowed me a comfortable platform from which to imagine the personal relationship between Mamah and Frank, and to create events and characters, some of which are based on real people".

Even though Frank Lloyd Wright has been the prominent figure throughout history, Loving Frank is written from Mamah Borthwick's perspective and has a bigger emphasis on her ideas, dilemmas, inner dialogues and choices, and how that experience changed her life and influenced her lover.

Besides being a very well written, easy-to-read novel that flows comfortably from one page to another, Loving Frank is also a fascinating example of the way a historical novelist works to create a literary work of fiction that masterfully ties together factual events with a real-life-inspired imagination, in a way that makes sense and entertains its audience.

Interview with Nancy Horan Author of Loving Frank, talking about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick and her book.

Reading about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick's Love Affair

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"If you are craving a dose of obscure history with scent of intrigue and a wicked shiver of forbidden love, something meaty and completely book-club-worthy, the Nancy Horan's first novel, Loving Frank, might be just the entrée of the month…. All in all, an amazing achievement and a rewarding read on many levels, one your book club will thank you for"

The Sunday Oregonian


Map of Chicago

A markerOak Park -
Oak Park, Chicago IL, EEUU
get directions

Streets of Chicago where the love story between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick begins. Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio.

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

The following questions are some of the discussion topics extracted from the reader’s guide that comes with the historical novel "Loving Frank", which can enrich your literary experience and book club gatherings:

  1. Why do you think the author, Nancy Horan, gave her novel the title Loving Frank?
  2. Do you think that a woman today who made the choices that Mamah makes would receive a more sympathetic or understanding hearing from the media and the general public?
  3. If Mamah were alive today, would she be satisfied with the progress women have achieved or would she believe there was still a long way to go?
  4. Is Frank an admirable figure in this novel?
  5. Edwin’s philosophy of life and love might be summed up in the following words from the novel: "Tell her happiness is just practice…. If she only acted happy, she would be happy." Do you agree or disagree with this philosophy?
  6. Carved over Wright's fireplace in his Oak Park home in Chicago are the words "Life is Truth". What do you think these words mean, and do Frank and Mamah live up to them?
  7. Why do you think Nancy Horan chose to give her novel Loving Frank the epigraph from Goethe, "One lives but once in the world"?
  8. When Mamah confesses her affair to her friend Mattie, Mattie demands, "What about duty? What about honor?" Discuss some of the different meanings that characters in the novel attach to these words.
  9. In analyzing the failure of the women’s movement to make more progress, Mamah says, "Yet women are part of the problem. We plan dinner parties and make flowers out of crepe paper. Too many of us make small lives for ourselves." Was this a valid criticism at the time, and is it one today?
  10. Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist whose work so profoundly influences Mamah, states at one point, "The very legitimate right of free love can never be acceptable if it is enjoyed at the expense of maternal love". Do you agree?
  11. How does Franks architecture parallel his life with Mamah and his philosophy of "living free in nature", expressing the "spirit of place"?

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Comments on the Best Seller Book Loving Frank

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    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Hi PDXKaraokeGuy, yes indeed, the book stays true to the real story and it is quite shocking. When I read the book I didn’t know anything about it at all and it was a big surprise; I didn’t want to comment about the ending in this hub so it doesn’t get ruined for others who don’t know it and haven’t read the book.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      I will have to check this out. Frank Lloyd Wright is my favorite architect and a fascinating eccentric. The ending of the real story is tragic and horrifying...

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Hi cclitgirl, thanks very much for spreading the word, for your interest and feedback. I am glad you liked the hub. If you like Frank Lloyd Wright and you enjoy reading, you should read this book by Nancy Horan. Besides, novels based on true stories always have something extra that make them -generally speaking- good books.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Beautiful layout in this hub! I also have always liked Frank Lloyd Wright, so it was really interesting to boot! Voted up and SHARING.