Larger-than-life personalities --- and even larger egos --- might seem to be novelist T.C. Boyle's stock in trade. His previous novels have focused on the lives of John Harvey Kellogg (THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE) and Alfred P. Kinsey (THE INNER CIRCLE). These men --- like Frank Lloyd Wright, the figure at the center of Boyle's latest book --- profess high ideals, desires to strive toward perfection or at least toward a more idealized notion of art, science or human behavior. But they all, to a man, also have a penchant toward behaviors that, if they don't completely discredit those lofty goals, nevertheless result in men who are more flawed, more human, than their ideals would have the world believe.
Wright, whose life is explored in THE WOMEN, Boyle's 12th novel, is no exception. Readers who know the architect only through his iconic Guggenheim Museum or Fallingwater will be shocked not only at the famed architect's repeated flirtations with bankruptcy and personal ruin but also by his scandal-plagued life. Even those who have read other books --- such as Nancy Horan's LOVING FRANK --- that expose Wright's less than idealized romantic endeavors will be drawn into the complex, multifaceted character Boyle brings to life here.
THE WOMEN has a fascinating narrative structure. The framing story is that the entire narrative is written in 1979 by a Japanese man, Tadashi Sato, who once served as one of Wright's "acolytes"/unpaid interns at Taliesin, Wright's home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin. In an opening essay that discusses Tadashi's own journey to Taliesin and his long-standing reverence for the man he calls "Wrieto-San," Tadashi posits that the narrative that follows is a collaboration between himself and his translator. Over the course of the novel, Tadashi, whose barely disguised idolatry of Wright's life and work shines through even the veneer of objectivity, continues to make his own voice heard, as he quibbles with the translator's choices in numerous footnotes, liberally scattered throughout the narrative. Consequently, this marginally unreliable narrator becomes, in essence, one of the key characters here.
What's more, THE WOMEN moves steadily backwards in time, opening as Wright meets the woman, Olgivanna Milanoff, who will eventually become his third wife, moving her into Taliesin in the guise of a housekeeper. Olgivanna's arrival garners not only national media attention but also the ire of Wright's second wife (to whom he's still married), the tempestuous Maud Miriam Noel. In this opening section, Miriam is a mess --- addicted to morphine, prone to violent verbal and physical attacks, hell-bent on Wright's financial and emotional destruction. As we move backwards in time in subsequent sections, however, we discover that there are other sides to Miriam, who, in her own over-the-top way, may be more like Wright than he himself realizes.
Artistic, sentimental, demanding Miriam is also possessed of a self-determined romanticism that blinds her (but not the reader) to her own self-delusion: "She watched the eagles rise on the thermals over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as if they held all the power of the universe in their wings --- or perhaps they were vultures, but no matter. She was there. She lived in the moment." Readers will also see that Miriam has her own reasons for the outrage over a mistress's usurpation of Wright's affection --- she has played that role herself. Miriam, like Wright himself, is exactly the kind of outsized character --- messy, complex, ripe with the possibility of self-caricature --- who Boyle loves to portray.
As the novel moves steadily backwards, to Wright's first wife and most famous --- and famously doomed --- mistress, readers will become increasingly drawn into the many contradictions that lie within Wright's life and work. The contrast between Wright's exalted reputation in the 21st century and his financial instability during his lifetime, between his painstakingly developed aesthetic philosophy and his almost comical lack of self-awareness, between the lifestyle demands he makes on his family and employees and the liberties he allows himself --- all these are richly explored, resulting in a portrait not just of a single man but of a whole way of thinking, living and loving.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011