I picked up this novel because my son is called Frank, so how could I resist?! But what a story - I'm so glad I discovered it. Chicago in the 1900s... polite society is scandalised when the celebrated architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, runs off with a client's wife, Mamah Borthwick. The lovers leave behind ten children and two broken marriages to pursue their 'honest life', first in Europe and then at their self-built hideaway in Wisconsin. This novel is essentially Mamah's tragic story, as she is relentlessly hounded by the press for her choice to leave her family.
Behind the scenes, we see Mamah is an intellectual who masters several languages and becomes translator to Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist whose ideas fired up the women's movement. The novel asks ethical questions that are still relevant to feminists today, and I found it fascinating to pay attention to my own reaction to Mamah's life choices - not least, her crucial decision to leave her children. The author does a remarkable job in retaining sympathy for Mamah by revealing the stark choice imposed by the social limitations of her time; namely, either remain in an unhappy marriage with the children, or leave without the children.
While the first half of the novel focuses on the relationship between Mamah and Frank - and their families - the second half moves into more reflective territory. Mamah slowly realises that the lofty ideals of her feminist mentor Ellen Key are as restrictive in many ways as those of the patriarchy. Similarly, she also realises that Frank Lloyd Wright's ideal of a 'democratic' architecture is built on the unpaid toil of the lower classes. In effect, Mamah gives up everything for false prophets. But her greatest tragedy is a brutal and sudden denouement that culminates in murder, leaving a solemn aftertaste of so many wasted lives.