This book has been a bestseller and for good reason. Ms. Horan seems by some miraculous act of imagination to have recreated Mamah Birkford and--this is the book's weakness if there is one--to have deified her in the process. Mamh was a reluctant closet feminist in the beginning devoted to her family and she's crucified for her irresponsible affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.
A quiet bookish woman, a former teacher and librarian married because of her husband Edwin's determination, Mamah is glad to settle on a marriage she calls a quiet union of friends. This is a not unreasonable aspiration in an era when marriage was the primary career choice and motherhood the necessary vocation of women. Mamah goes from the meditative independent life of a working woman in her 30's to the chaotic selfless world of a wife and mother attending the incessant needs of two young children and a traditional husband. But here the frazzled housefrau's excuse for running off with her lover and deserting her family falls down.
She had help lots of it. Her older sister, Lizzie, a schoolteacher who paid for Mamah's education, comes to live with her. Her devoted husband hires a nanny/housekeeper and a cook. In fact, she was in the enviable position of being cherished by her husband, so she was free to attend lectures at the 19th century woman's club, where at the book's opening, she's running off to hear Frank Lloyd Wright, more than a casual acquaintance. They met when Edwin hired him to design a house and the attraction was as strong as their desire to keep their families intact--so they had separated until she invites him to visit after the lecture. The affair resumes.
But this is no high-brow bodice-ripper of an egomaniacal genius preying on a bored housewife. Loving Frank is the condition that brings Mamah to her senses, and she begins a journey to set herself free. But Ms.Horan shows that neither Frank or Mamah get away with anything. And her reconstruction of the emotional lives of these complex people feels true. It's even more remarkable that she wrote this book with almost no sources on Mamah, until by chance she happened on a few letters between Mamah and Ellen Keys, an influential Swedish feminist.
Mamah came to be Keys' translator in the U.S., but when she ran off with Frank, she left a series of unfinished writings-translations and novels. With Wright she gained the seriousness to discover who she might be. As much as her affair with Wright changed her perception of her abilities, it was Keys who enabled her to make a living, while pondering the rightness of a union where love was the overwhelming condition, not an excuse for a legal contract. Ellen Keys took Ibsen's Nora out of the dollhouse and into the frightening but ultimately satisfying world of self-sufficiency.
Horan shows these ideas as not just revolutionary for Mamah's time but our own. The idea of free love between equals as being the ideal environment to raise kids, is one largely unfulfilled, except maybe Sweden where marriage is not so common. Keys felt that raising kids in a loving environment was a woman's highest fulfillment, unlike US feminists who were focussed on the vote and jobs. Mamah meets Ellen at her lecture and she finds an outlet for her feelings. And when Frank leaves her in Germany to return home to Chicago and his wife, she feels less betrayal than understanding. She also feels horrific guilt about not being with her children but knows he will find no redemption going home. Besides the bitterness of their families, the press in the US was a relentless persecutor throughout their lives.
Alone, she learns Swedish in Germany so she can translate Keys. She teaches school and is impoverished, but earns a new depth of understanding. But she must always contend with the fact that when she closed the door on her two sleeping children, 3 and 9, and left them to join Frank. Never again will she be the central person in their life. This the crux of the case against this tarnished heroine. As a mother, I found it hard to believe, though most every mother I know fantasizes about being child-free now but few would pay Mamah's price. It took her years to realize she would never have them back.
As Frank builds their ultimate fulfillment, a house for Mamah called Talesin, Horan shows his shortcomings; the discrepancy between his high ideals and cavalier way he deals with money-the pay of his staff-and his disparagement of those whose talents contibuted to his success. He is a flawed genius and Mamah has to make him own up to the standards they both espouse and confront how he's so enraptured with himself, his myth, that he believes he's more deserving than others. When she moves out, he can only win her back with genuine reform.
Just as Mamah was influenced by Wright to seek her higher self, Horan makes a case that Wright's architecture was also influenced by Mamah. He never resides in Chicago again and he and Mamah finally achieve the life they want, out of convention, when she and her visiting children die in a tragic fire set by a madman. You may know this, but it's still a shocker, as is this novel of ideas dressed in an affair about two intellectuals perhaps better suited to our time.