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Book Review: The Women – A Novel by T.C. Boyle

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There’s something that at times smacks of the psycho-biographical bodice ripper in The Women, T.C. Boyle’s novel of love and life and Frank Lloyd Wright:

    …he moved a coed from the University of Wisconsin into Taliesin and his bed. But he wasn’t satisfied. Not yet. Not even approximately. He needed — complication. Love, yes. Sex, of course. But something more than that, something fraught and embattled, a relation to make the juices flow in every sense.

To have designs of a differing kind — Wright otherwise did have more than 500 completed works under his belt, and was named "the greatest American architect of all time" by the American Institute of Architects — is a notion beguilingly captured in Boyle’s brilliantly structured twelfth novel. It’s a reimagining that is line with the fictionalized explorations of cereal-meister Dr. John Henry Kellogg in 1993’s The Road to Wellville, and sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey in The Inner Circle from 2004.

Indeed, in a dimensional explication of the charismatic egomaniac who not only thrived on “complication” but who virtually sought relationships with a restraining order, Boyle bears out, in true Taliesin mythological perception, how the Welsh family motto Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd — which means "The Truth Against the World" — plays out in the often turbulent tribulations vs. tender trap fashion. The narration puts into motion the triumphs and travails of the four beloveds of Wright’s lifetime blueprint: his devoted and put-upon first wife, Kitty Tobin, mother of his six children; the feminist mistress he ran off with, Mamah Cheney, tragically killed; the obsessive Southern belle Maud Miriam Noel, a morphine-mined life of the lynch party; and Olgivanna Milanoff, the exotic and hardworking Montenegrin “don’t call me dancer” dancer.

Told in reverse chronological order, starting with Olgivanna, The Women goes effortlessly backwards in time with episodes and events flowing under the accessible wayback-machine narration of Japanese architectural student Sato Tadashi, who comes in the 1930s to Taliesin, Wright's Wisconsin estate and studio, to be an apprentice (and not incidentally to wash dishes and peel potatoes and such for the miserly Master). Sato gets to witness first-hand not only Wright’s visionary approach to architectural science and aesthetics, and his larger-than-life appetites in life, but also some of the latter days with settled-down Olgivanna, who once led a fascinating life as a ballet dancer and was a student of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff. And who also came to live in fear for her life from Wright’s not-soon-enough divorced wife, the payback poetess, Miriam.

Actually — as characterized by Boyle — there’s a lot to be said for Wright and Miriam’s year-long marriage, at least for the 10% manic side. What led to that first meeting — when they spoke in novelistic lines from Rimbaud and Sandburg — was a heartfelt consolation letter from Miriam that acted as a surefire solace to Wright, who had just lost his love under devastating circumstances. It was a clincher of an epistle, too: “We are kindred souls, we two. Battered souls, souls yearning for the shore of lightness and floral display to show its face amongst the battering waves of the dark seas of despair…”

Little did Wright realize that Miriam, during low tides of despair, was capable and inclined to drown everyone around her in her extreme jealousy and paranoia. And ultimatums: the contentiousness and gauntlet-tossing in Taliesin between Miriam, Wright’s mother, and the housekeeper (the harpy, the hag, and the holier-than-hoity-toity), is a bad, prolonged case of characterization overkill. It’s unclear whether Boyle is striving for harrowing one-upmanship or humor with Wright as woefully ill-equipped mediator, but the effect is one of shrillness and evocations of character assassination.

Before Miriam — a Zelda Fitzgerald figure of sorts — came along, another bad news character rolled out of central casting about 1905. Wright’s stint with his mistress Mamah, when he elopes to Europe with the wife of one of his clients before divorcing his first wife Kitty (he’ll stray yet again while married to this second wife), was the most controversial relationship for the architect, a scandal detrimental to his practice. Most of all though, it was the ruinous and cavalier decision to run out on his wife and six children that was a true devastation. “There was a calculation here,” Kitty thought, “an algebra of the emotions as abstruse as anything in any of the textbooks on her children’s desks.” (In one of Boyce’s incisive and judiciously-implemented footnotes, Sato points out that Wright “seemed bewildered by [his children].)

Then suddenly something’s taken out of the equation all together when tragedy strikes at Taliesin on August 15, 1914. In the most vividly-rendered and dramatically culminating concluding scenes in a too-long and at times meandering book, a newly-hired servant, experiencing culture clash and an escalating rage, sets fire to the home and murders seven people with an axe as the fire burns. The dead includes Mamah and her two visiting children.

During the subsequent chaos of the capture and arrest, the further finger-pointing and insinuations, is one of Boyle’s sly subtleties looming large. (As opposed to the wit and wordplay that never recedes: “Yes,” she said, teasing out the sibilance of that sematic little s till the room hissed and crepitated with it, “yes, you, may.”) With another clue for you all, an ambiguous denouement and uncertain course of action waives an implication for Wright but lets set some ambivalences while cementing in a certain lifetime pattern.

Moreover, The Women seems at the end to come full circle to provide an answer to Sato’s introductory question: “Was [Wright] the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch