had a lot of promise: an independent female protagonist who happens to be based on a real-life first-wave feminist and suffragette and a graduate of my alma mater to boot. On top of that, it’s a Midwestern setting. Right away, however, I ran into problems. If you don’t know anything about Mamah Borthwick and don’t want to ruin the end of this novel, don’t Google her. I did. I regret it.]
I am not a fan of adultery fiction. I make exceptions, of course, particularly for the Victorian gothic adultery fic, I’m-in-arranged-marriage adultery fic, and my-spouse-has-been-presumed-dead-for-years-but-isn’t-really adultery fic. I-married-this-guy-because-he-was-in-love-with-me-and-I-thought-he-was-nice-and-I-wanted-kids-but-now-I’d-rather-do-this-other-guy-because-he-gets
-me adultery fic? Not so much.
Mamah Borthwick Cheney was not living at an easy time for women. She couldn’t vote, it was nearly impossible to have children and
a career, and educated women were looked at with scorn and distrust. On top of that, she is, at the novel’s beginning, stuck in the suburbs, which might push any reasonable person over the edge. [I live in the suburbs. I feel millimeters from the edge everyday.] Her husband, Edwin, is an intelligent man but it is a technical sort of intelligence and they are far from intellectual equals.
Edwin admires the new house of a colleague of his, built by an up and coming architect named Frank Lloyd Wright, and before long, wants a Wright house for himself. Mamah isn’t sold on the idea, but soon enough, the Cheney’s are living in their own Wright home, and Frank Lloyd and Catherine Wright are their friends. And, well, Frank Lloyd gets
Mamah. He understands
Soon enough, Mamah has left her children and her husband and fled to Europe with Frank. She’s sort of pursuing her own intellectual interests, but mostly she’s working for Frank. And here is where the novel falls apart into little tiny pieces Before it gets chopped into even tinier bits and set on fire.
There is a VERY big difference between the personal agency each and every human being enjoys (or should) as natural right, and the self-indulgent and adolescent right to ‘freedom of personality’ that Mamah (of the novel) asserts. Mamah was doing quite well for herself before her marriage: she was self-supporting and had time money and education for intellectual pursuits that granted her a freedom that 99.999999% of women of her age would never dare to dream of. She wanted children, though, and married the first and only sap to fall in love with her. Edwin (of the novel), was in love her, which made Mamah Borthwick Cheney (of the novel) the closest thing that a woman of her age could dream of : an educated woman with the means for child-rearing AND intellectual pursuits with a husband who married her not for political or social expediency but because he loved her.
Mamah leaves him, and the children that she marries him in order to have, for ‘freedom of personality.’ In doing this, Mamah doesn’nt act like a woman asserting independence and personal agency, she acts like she’s the only person in the world who matters. This isn’t feminist or womanist; it is just, for lack of a better word, selfish and irresponsible. If the woman movement and later the feminist movement fought for anything, it was for the explicit recognition that women are equally human to men and of equal capability and responsibility and the recognition that their word was equal to a man’s. A woman who backs out of marriage vows that she entered into willingly (in the novel) because she finds someone who gets
her [the adolescent immaturity of this argument that Mamah and Frank make throughout the novel is infuriating. It's an argument you can't really refute - this 'getting' of another person, because you can't pin down a definition of what it is to 'get' - only that you have a feeling that it is a state free from obligation to or expectation from another person and a state where one feels all of the benefits of relations with out having to recognize any consequences. I wanted to yell at the two of them: 'TENTH GRADE CALLED.']
I thought often of the contrast between Mamah Borthwick of Loving Frank
and the Dorothy's of Kate Walbert's awesome[b:A Short History of Women, who make difficult choices and live with the consequences and enjoy their freedom all the same.
Frank Lloyd Wright, of the novel, is unforgivable and an unforgivable weenie. He leaves his family with nothing but debt to traipse across Europe with his mistress, but demands that he needs
beautiful things in order to live and create and that this need
is far more important than his respect for his friends or creditor. As my father would say, he suffers at an elite level.
The Frank Lloyd Wright of the novel is reminiscent of a lot of men that love a smart girl. Not in the way that a man loves a woman though, but more in the way that vain and dandy-ish narcissist loves their new Omega watch. They love her for the look of it and what it says about them that they’ll date a woman who knows what she’s about. They’ll talk art and politics and science and what-have-you, they’ll pay lip-service to women’s lib; but they still want a sandwich and a shirt ironed when they get home. Mamah claims she’s leaving her family for freedom, but a man like Frank Lloyd (of the novel) isn’t freedom: he’s just entertainment and sexual titillation and a little ego stroking when he thinks you need it.
One might be able to forgive Mamah, though, if her affair with Frank had been a short-lived spring board to a new life. If she'd left her family and started a teaching position in Colorado Springs (one possibility offered her) or in Leipzig (another). A career in which she could invest her intellectual energy that would be wasted as an Oak Park housewife might justify her choice to leave her home. But she doesn’t leave for a career. She leaves to become Frank's secretary.
And so, Mamah’s family is destroyed and then really destroyed
for not much. This novel held so much promise, but it just ended up an unredeemable disappointment for this book lover and feminist. I used to love Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and enjoyed seeking out his homes in Chicago and elsewhere, but I don’t know that that I will ever be able to look at them the same way, which is sad, because, after all, this was just a novel.