Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Love Is a Mix Tapeby Rob Sheffield
Loving Frank was a birthday gift from my best friend from high school, a genuine bibliophile and an all-around smart person. I knew I was going to like this one if I only let myself fall into it.
I have to admit, my experience of reading it was not my favorite: I had to do it on the sly, as I feel tremendously busy right now. So I read it in drips and drabs: a few pages before bed, or while I stood in the kitchen, waiting for water to boil for mac and cheese. I never felt like I had an afternoon to really lose myself in it. I never gave myself that luxury.
But really, that’s what this book asks of its readers: some devoted time to get lost in another time, a familiar time, but a distant time nonetheless. The story recounts Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright in a time when sex scandals sold newspapers like crazy and reporters hounded celebrities at home, during private moments, whether it’s moral to do so or not (anyone else thinking of Eliot Spitzer? Balthazar Getty and Sienna Miller? Brangelina, for crissakes? Anyone? Anyone?) The part of the story in which Mamah and Frank were demonized and crucified for their extramarital affair and their desire to just belong to each other felt incredibly modern, current, and realistic. It wasn’t a wonderland of crazy sex and happiness: there was pain and regret and an awareness that they were making life-altering decisions not just for themselves, but for many people in their lives.
That said, there were a couple of things that bugged me:
–I could not stand reading Mamah’s name over and over and over again. It literally drove me nuts. I know it was her real name. I know there was nothing the author could do about it. But seriously–Mamah? It must be the ugliest name ever, and it really prevented me from imagining her as a lovely, intellectual woman. I got the sense that it bugged the author a bit too: the fact that she had to remind the readers how it was pronounced several times throughout the book, and the musings she put into Mamah’s head about it seemed to speak to her own feelings.
–The big surprise ending kind of blew me away. I will not describe any aspect of it. No spoiler alert necessary. However, I have to say that given that this was a fictionalized version of real events, I would have liked to have seen the author’s touch come in and foreshadow it a little. I see how this might have occurred to her, and why she might have rejected it: the characters involved had no foreshadowing of the events themselves in real life, so why should the author then place it in? Given how much of the rest of the book was so realistic–the emotions, the lack of romanticization, etc–it was an artistic touch the author likely deemed unnecessary. But when it happened, it hit me like a ton of bricks and made me wonder why I had spent so much time reading toward that particular outcome.
It could have been handled differently. Perhaps if the whole story itself had been a flashback imagined by some key characters as they were experiencing the fateful day described near the end of the book, the ending would not have been so shocking and disconnected from the rest of the narrative.
Despite these beefs, I enjoyed learning about FLW and Mamah’s slant on the feminist movement of the time. I’m totally psyched to go out and visit Falling Water now (the closest FLW building to me), and to get to see some of the kind of art described in the novel. And I respect the way the author imagined the story: the realism she brought to the emotional aspect of the story was very genuine.
Love Is a Mix Tape sat on my Amazon wish list for quite some time, and I finally got it for my birthday. It’s a quick read and an entertaining one, especially for someone of my generation–I think Rob Sheffield is just a few years older than me, and I definitely came of age in the era of mix tape creation.
He tells the tale of how music brought him together with his wife Renee, and how, once she passed away very unexpectedly, it became a torture and finally a healing salve for him. It’s a quirky story, filled with playlists and an indier-than-thou attitude. Rob has great taste in music for sure, and getting to see some of my own familiar favorites mixed in with new bands has, if nothing else, inspired me to spend some time on iTunes digging up some new songs with the book open. I found myself asking whether or not the role music played in the Sheffield’s life was really as important as he described it though. I’m pretty obsessed with music myself, but it seemed as though Rob and Renee were endlessly making mixes. Really? I found myself wondering at various points: Are there reallythat many hours in a week that one could spend creating these tapes, especially in a pre-mix cd world? Making tapes is a long process, a real-time process: if the tape is 90 minutes, it takes 90 minutes plus to make one. It seemed exaggerated.
Or maybe the time I spent watching Blossom reruns was the time they spent on mix tapes. Who knows?
The thing I loved best about the book was how Rob made Renee a very vivid character in showing details about her rather than telling them. Renee apparently was a girl who struggled with her weight, but Rob never comes out and says this: he describes her as incredibly beguiling, but as someone who spends a lot of time sewing her own clothes because she’s frequently needing larger and larger sizes. It’s a very loving way of describing what must have been a frustrating battle for Renee. Because he keeps his description focused on her action of sewing, I never lost sight of the sexy, head-turning (and probably thinner) girl he originally fell in love with. It was a gracious touch, and it made his devotion to her come through crystal clear.
I can’t imagine being as young as Rob was and having to bury a spouse. I can’t imagine building a life with someone and having it crumble in the space of an afternoon. I can’t imagine having to go back to an apartment after that particular loss and then figure out what to do next: going through her things, sleeping in the bed he once shared with her, getting rid of things and moving on. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life, but never one quite as visceral as Rob’s loss of Renee probably was. I love that he’s moved on. I love that music and writing and living are all still important and wonderful for him. It’s what she would have wanted–of course I didn’t know her, but it’s so clear from the text that she would have wanted him to go on, to love again, to be happy, to think of her fondly when he hears some certain song.
Loving and losing and loving again: when you’re in the middle of the loving part, the losing seems impossible, distant, ridiculous to even consider. And when you’re losing, the loving again seems sometimes sickening and sometimes as likely as winning the lottery. It’s such a cliche to dwell on the fact that life goes on but it does. It’s a minor miracle, but it does.