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'Loving Frank' and risking it all

Frank Lloyd Wright's married, intellectual lover steps out from the shadows in this debut novel.

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There's a new literary policy in effect regarding great men and the women stuck behind them: Shoo the fellows out of the way.

Novels such as "Mr. Emerson's Wife" by Amy Belding Brown have used a combination of historical record and authorial imagination to pull intelligent, vibrant women out of the long shadows cast by the men they loved. Now, former journalist Nancy Horan adds another fascinating entry with her first novel Loving Frank.

When it comes to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, you have to be a little specific about the woman in question. Horan isn't focusing on any of the three Mrs. Wrights, but instead on the woman who was Wright's companion during the most tumultuous time of his long life: Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

Cheney met Wright in 1904 when he designed one of his "prairie houses" for her and her husband, Edwin. She was brilliant with languages – able to speak three by the time she was in kindergarten – and was a teacher and librarian before her marriage. Without these intellectual pursuits, Horan writes, the mother of two was grappling with depression.

As for her husband, Edwin Cheney is written as a decent, loyal, successful man, who was proud of his intellectual wife and wanted her to be able to take his love for granted. Unfortunately for him, she did.

"Sometimes I think the reason he and I have lasted as long as we have," she tells her older sister Lizzie, who lived with them, "is because you are at the dinner table to keep the conversation going."

In 1909, Cheney and Wright scandalized Chicago society by eloping to Europe, leaving behind nine children, two devastated spouses, and an architecture firm in shambles. (Clients canceled commissions because of the scandal, and new orders dried up.)

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