2009 Recipient of the
James Fenimore Cooper Prize




I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.

So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.

While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney’s profound influence on Wright.

Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Horan’s Mamah is a woman seeking to find her own place, her own creative calling in the world. Mamah’s is an unforgettable journey marked by choices that reshape her notions of love and responsibility, choices that ultimately lead to this novel’s stunning conclusion.


“LOVING FRANK, an enthralling first novel by Nancy Horan, is set at the same time as Doctorow’s modern classic—the decade before World War I—and recreates its weld of fact and fiction, wrapped around the core theme of female self-actualization. Unlike the wife in Ragtime, however, the woman under scrutiny in Horan’s book actually lived … The conversations [Horan] invents between Mamah and Frank, as between all of the characters, proceed with unforced ease, enfolding multiple layers of their personal and professional lives, touching on poetry, translation, architecture, idealism, love and family. At a distance of a hundred years, these conversations can hardly be actual, but Horan makes them plausible and engrossing. …. In LOVING FRANK, bringing the buried truths of the ill-starred relationship of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright to light, Horan only increases her heroine’s mystery. Mamah Borthwick Cheney wasn’t just any woman, but Horan makes her into an enigmatic Everywoman—a symbol of both the freedoms women yearn to have and of the consequences that may await when they try to take them.”
New York Times Book Review

“A transporting drama … LOVING FRANK humanizes its main characters so successfully that [what made Frank and Mamah sever their family ties] seems no mystery at all … truly artful fiction.”
New York Times

“Nancy Horan’s thoughtful debut novel, LOVING FRANK, is the perfect selection to jump-start some satisfyingly heated arguments within your book club. … The best part of the novel is the way Horan makes Cheney’s behavior understandable … You empathize with the doomed Mamah Cheney. But you also think about the moral implications of sacrificing one’s children vs. sacrificing for the love of a man of genius. I still can’t decide how I feel about her. Perhaps that is Horan’s point. This is one complicated story—let the book clubs thrash it out.”
USA Today

“An amazing story.”
—Susan Stamberg, National Public Radio

“Horan proves masterful at evoking Wright’s stunning structures and the expansive feeling of standing inside them.”
People (Critic’s Choice, 3 ½ stars)

“This gripping historical novel offers new insight into the mind of an American icon through the woman he loved.”

“Fascinating … an exploration of the human costs of moving outside of society’s rules. … Horan excels at research, and does an admirable job of recreating the five or so years [that Mamah Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright] were together. … The fact that Horan is able to make a reader care about Cheney after [she leaves her children] is a testament to both her writing ability and the complexity of her heroine.”
Christian Science Monitor

“[Horan] does well to avoid serving up a bodice-ripper for the smart set….She succeeds in conveying the emotional center of her protagonist, whom she paints as a proto-feminist, an educated woman fettered by the role of bourgeois matriarch.”
The New Yorker

“This novel is so great, it’s hard to believe it’s the author’s first.”

“LOVING FRANK is a glory to behold. … at its heart this is a book about one of architectural history’s most difficult relationships.”
New York Magazine

“If you know anything about the scandal that ensued when Frank Lloyd Wright, the most iconic American architect of all time, and the wife of one of his clients became lovers, you may also wonder why no one wrote about the affair. But after reading LOVING FRANK, Nancy Horan’s novelization of the story, you will be happy that someone with Horan’s sensitivity and storytelling gifts has finally done so. … Horan’s sympathetic but measured account of how Wright and Cheney come to recognize each other as fellow ‘outsiders’ who sacrifice their children and families on the altar of their yearnings, is disturbing but also disturbingly logical in its own way. Horan’s fascinating story not only reveals much about the flawed genius and his lonely mistress but also offers a powerful commentary on an era when American feminists focused, as Mamah observes, on the right to vote while ignoring the right to a ‘fully realized selfhood.’ Horan’s novel would be worth reading for this alone, but LOVING FRANK reveals as well what we expect to get from great fiction: timeless truths about ourselves.”
New York Daily News

“Horan’s nuanced evocation of these flawed human beings plays beautifully against the lurid facts of their situation. As in the best historical fiction, she finds both the truth and the heart of her story.”
Los Angeles Times

“In Mamah, Horan creates an unforgettably complex heroine—and the perfect conduit through which to explore the shifting social mores of the time.”
Washington Post

“LOVING FRANK is a novel of impressive scope and ambition.”
Washington Post Book World

“As Frank and Mamah’s love affair advances toward its sad conclusion, the powerful writing imbues the tale with the terrible inevitability of a Greek tragedy.”
Chicago Magazine

“An impressive and admirable debut. … If Frank Lloyd Wright is the reason people will pick up this book, Mamah Borthwick is the reason they will keep reading it. … Horan writes graceful, at times riveting prose … LOVING FRANK [is] a beautifully designed, innovative and noteworthy work of art in itself.”
Chicago Tribune

“In her debut novel, LOVING FRANK, author Nancy Horan has transformed the half-forgotten affair into a compelling tale of love, loss and wrenching sacrifices. Horan has brought Mamah to life by combing newspapers, letters and Frank’s autobiography, then drawing from her keen imagination to fill the gaps between facts. The resulting character is a spirited and very real woman who wrestles with what it means to be Frank’s partner and simultaneously a mother, a feminist and an intellectual in the early 20th century. … Horan draws Frank’s character with so many vivid dimensions that he nearly jumps off the pages to stride through the room. … Horan writes with liveliness, yet her language becomes artfully spare as she leads up to the shocker at the end of the book. The last few chapters are written and paced in such a way that even if you know the story of what happened at Taliesin, you won’t be able to tear yourself away. And when it’s all over, Mamah and her struggles are likely to stay with you for a long time.”
Seattle Times

“A luminous historical novel … LOVING FRANK is a beautifully orchestrated rendering of the affair and the inner lives of its two love-torn principals. Understated yet dramatic, painstaking and convincing, this is fiction with the heft of truth.”
—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“LOVING FRANK is a staggering read, a complex tale of the love affair between two eccentric, intelligent and unforgettable characters. Though it is very much a literary novel, sparks fly off the page.
Pros: “The novel explodes with conflicting emotions and difficult situations. The tension between Mamah and Frank is palpable, the history fascinating and the climax of the novel terrifying.”
Rocky Mountain News (Grade: A)

“Memorable … Horan does a masterful job of bringing these conflicts, times and settings to life.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Having read LOVING FRANK, I’ll never see anything by Frank Lloyd Wright, not a house, not a stained-glass reproduction, not a pen bearing one of his designs, without thinking of Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Such is the alchemy of the nearly flawless historical fiction that debut novelist Nancy Horan achieves with LOVING FRANK. … [Horan] displays a remarkable gift for weaving in historical nuggets and sumptuous period detail. She brings the voices of Frank and Mamah alive with imagery and quotes that may be mostly her imagination but sound resoundingly authentic. … After all these years, the real scandal is that Mamah Cheney never got her due. She was quite possibly the love of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life, and she certainly influenced his heart, mind and work. LOVING FRANK is a fitting legacy of her devotion. Ms. Horan has done Mamah proud.”
Dallas Morning News

“If you’re craving a dose of obscure history with a scent of intrigue and a wicked shiver of forbidden love, something meaty and completely book-club worthy, then Nancy Horan’s first novel, LOVING FRANK, might be just the entrée of the month. … There’s never been anything quite like LOVING FRANK … This story is [Mamah’s], completely and powerfully, rendered in fresh prose that doesn’t try too hard yet has enough credible voice of the era to make you forget this is fiction. … The real fun here, however, comes from understanding how Horan pieced it all together. … LOVING FRANK is as much a trip back in time as it is a bittersweet love story, capturing the ambiance of an age in which a woman with Mamah’s intellect and bravado had to pick and choose her battlefields, and at her own peril. All in all, an amazing achievement and a rewarding read on many levels, one your book club will thank you for.”
The Oregonian

“[Frank and Mamah’s] story has all the elements of melodrama, but Horan doesn’t sensationalize it. She brings their unconventional love affair to life with delicacy and restraint. Mamah died over 100 years ago. However, her story, that of a woman torn by love, motherhood, and the need to establish her own identity, is utterly contemporary.”
Boston Globe

“In LOVING FRANK, Horan doesn’t so much defend Wright and Cheney as try to understand and explain what may have motivated them. She delivers a wart-and-all portrait of Wright (who was Cheney’s true soul mate but could also be selfish, vain, reckless with money and of questionable ethics in his business dealings) and, more important, a nuanced and deeply sympathetic portrayal of his paramour.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“Horan has pieced together a convincing narrative from relatively scant historical documents. … It is a story that should resonate with anyone facing difficult choices, and Horan makes no attempt to sugarcoat the ramifications of Mamah’s decision to follow her heart. … The reader’s ultimate reaction to Mamah and her story lies outside the author’s hands. … Horan does a fine job of presenting the story, leaving the reader to judge.”
Denver Post

“Nancy Horan’s new historical novel about the relationship [between Frank & Mamah], LOVING FRANK, is an operatic love story that reads like nonfiction at its best.”
St. Petersburg Times

“LOVING FRANK is marvelously inventive, realistic and thought-provoking.”
Capital Times (Madison)

“Horan’s first novel, LOVING FRANK, is a stunning work of historical fiction … a book that will stay with readers long after they’ve finished reading it … Crisp and pitch-perfect, the dialogue propels the story. … Readers will judge [Mamah]; to her credit, Horan does not. This absence of judgment makes her novel even more powerful.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“With her novel, LOVING FRANK, Nancy Horan rescues the real Mamah from the footnotes of architectural history and gives her voice, presence and stature. Mamah’s is a hero’s journey, and Horan does a wonderful job of mining Mamah’s letters for the kind of character traits and autobiographical details that argue for Mamah’s own inner goddess.”
Raleigh News & Observer

“In LOVING FRANK, Nancy Horan presents a superb fictional account of Wright and Cheney’s relationship. … Her Cheney is a standout. She’s an educated woman who longs for self-reliance and cultural sustenance, while understanding the awful impact a scandal would have on their families.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“LOVING FRANK captures the essence of this great architect and provides a glimpse of the man behind the genius. … This is the perfect book for book club discussion. The author raises many thought-provoking topics including the women’s movement, art, architecture, politics, and morals … I look forward to many more books written by this first-time writer.”
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

“LOVING FRANK is a nuanced exploration of the egotism and creativity at the heart of the relationship between Wright, an architectural genius on the rise, and Mamah Cheney. … One of Horan’s achievements is how effectively she intertwines Mamah’s evolution with the era’s social change. … As the book evolved—and it did, decisively—I found myself ever more engaged. … The conclusion … is unexpectedly powerful.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Nancy Horan’s LOVING FRANK, which has had marvelous press coverage on NPR and the New York Times, deserves the praise. … Based on years of rigorous research, Horan’s book shows off her remarkable writing skill and ability to intelligently narrate this gripping tale. The lives of Mamah and Frank touch upon the history of art, architecture, suburbanization, anthroposophy, spiritualism, feminism and suffrage as well as the fine shades of emotion surrounding motherhood, adultery, desire and intellectual fulfillment. … [Horan’s] passion shows. Those who have studied Wright—whose building ideas, brilliant and grandiose, not to mention impractical in engineering terms, electrified American architecture—will appreciate the portrait of him, but anyone interested in human relationships should appreciate this well-crafted, finely considered work of art.”
Eugene Weekly

“Novelist Horan skillfully recreates worlds both at home and abroad that bring those times—pre-women’s suffrage, pre-totalitarianism, pre-civil rights—vividly back to life. She has taken an uncomfortable, even lurid, story and given us the background to appreciate and understand the impulses behind it.”
The Olympian