By Nancy Horan
Ballantine, 362 pp., $23.95
By Patricia Gaffney
Shaye Areheart, 355 pp., $23
Dont Make a Scene
By Valerie Block
Ballantine, 323 pp., $24.95
These three interesting and very different novels are nontraditional love stories that explore a familiar subject, difficult relationships between men and women.
Writing fiction about historical figures must be a tricky business, perhaps especially when a writer is trying to imagine the intimate details of a famous person's love life. First-time novelist Nancy Horan's "Loving Frank" convincingly blends fact and fiction in telling the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1903 Mamah and her husband, Edwin, a prosperous Chicago engineer, commissioned Wright to design a house. As it took shape Mamah and the architect succumbed to an overwhelming mutual attraction and began an affair. Eventually she left her husband and two children for Wright, and he walked away from his wife and six children to live with her. Their relationship was a scandal in Chicago society and beyond.
Wright's life and work have been documented and examined by numerous writers, but none have written about Mamah, who has been dismissed as a minor figure in the architect's evolution. Horan suspected that she played a more influential role in Wright's life. In an afterword, Horan describes how she went about doing research on a woman who seemed to have left behind very little in her own voice. The turning point was finding a collection of letters Mamah had written to the influential Swedish feminist Ellen Key, whose work she had translated. The letters revealed Mamah's personality, illuminated her conflicts, and enabled Horan to create a convincing character.
Mamah was educated, a gifted linguist. She fell in love with the artist and ended up living with the man. Loving Wright can't have been easy. He was brilliant, charming, charismatic, but he was also narcissistic, dishonest, given to grandiosity, capable of emotional cruelty. Their 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 almost 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.
One midlife crisis leads to another in "Mad Dash," Patricia Gaffney's good-humored story of a marriage in trouble. Impulsive, energetic Dash Bateman, a children's portrait photographer, and her buttoned-down husband, Andrew, a history professor at Mason-Dixon College, have been married for 20 years. Returning home late one night from another faculty cocktail party, they find a freezing puppy on their doorstep. Andrew refuses to let Dash keep the dog. Dash bundles up the puppy and gets ready to leave. But before she walks out the door there's a moment when Andrew stands at the stove talking about his allergies and heating his customary bedtime milk. "I'm married to a man who drinks warm milk,' Dash suddenly realizes. "The horror of that closed in on me, like being sealed in an envelope, like being buried alive."
Dash and dog conveniently move to the Batemans' summer cabin in Virginia, where she makes friends with an older married couple and their good-looking nephew. Andrew, meanwhile, is glad to have some peace and quiet for a change. He's flattered to learn he's a candidate to head the history department, a job he's not sure he wants. The ending of "Mad Dash" is altogether predictable, but most of the novel is so much fun that readers will forgive the mushy ending.
Diane Kurasik, the central character in Valerie Block's clever, entertaining "Don't Make a Scene," runs the Bedford Street Cinema, a revival movie theater in Manhattan, booking films on themes such as "Heels, Cads, Sadists and Heartbreakers" and "Apartments We Covet." For Diane, who sees life in terms of classic movies, the latter theme is all too personal: She's about to be pitched out of her rent-controlled apartment. Her search for a new home is even more fruitless and desperate than her love life, lately a series of blind dates with bores in the grip of various obsessions -- rock climbing, lactose intolerance, the Second Amendment. Watching "An Unmarried Woman" for the umpteenth time, she realizes that she's felt 42 and divorced since she was 15, when she first saw the movie. Now, approaching 40, she's becoming resigned, more or less, to being without a man, but she can't get along without a place to live.
Vladimir Hurtado Padrón fled Cuba 10 years before and has no intention of returning. He has made his position clear to his estranged wife, but she refuses to divorce him. Vladimir and Diane meet when his firm of architects is hired to renovate and expand the Bedford Street Cinema. They're attracted to each other, and if this were an ordinary romance they would, after a series of misunderstandings and setbacks, fall in love. But this is more of an anti-romance. They become involved, but it doesn't work out. He's distant and uncommunicative. She's unsettled and disgruntled. Then Vladimir's 17-year old son, Javier, whom he hasn't seen since he left Cuba, turns up, and Diane's life begins to resemble one of the French movies she loves, something directed by Louis Malle. "Don't Make a Scene" is an amusing, sophisticated novel with two interesting major figures and a nicely developed cast of supporting characters.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.